Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy: The Last Bengali Prime Minister of Pakistan

The Editorial Board

One fine summer night in July 1956 in Los Angeles, a presidential motorcade cruised down Sunset Boulevard from the legendary Pickfair mansion in Beverly Hills to the historic Ambassador Hotel in the L.A. neighborhood known today as Little Bangladesh. 

The motorcade was escorting the fifth Prime Minister of Pakistan, a Bengali politician and lawyer named Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who had just met with U.S. President Eisenhower in D.C., was set to tour Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon next and was now meeting movie stars in Hollywood. After partying late into the night, the Bengali Prime Minister of Pakistan was found in the hotel lobby at 3 A.M., enjoying sandwiches and orange juice with the U.S. State Department’s Chief of Protocol, Wiley T. Buchanan. The next morning, he would be seen totally rested in his silk white pajamas, back to discussing a range of political issues facing Pakistan as head of state with the press including the nuclear program, joint electorates and joining Cold-War era military pacts. 

A direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad whose family settled in Bengal as Sufi saints, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was a pre-Partition organizer for the Muslims of Bengal, a pioneering leader of Pakistan serving as fifth Prime Minister, the founder of the still-ruling Awami League Party and the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program. 

How exactly his family settled and made a home in Bengal for over 900 years and how he himself was so uniquely positioned and accomplished in the history of the Indian subcontinent, are two tales that meant to be re-told for the continued gratitude and guidance for South Asians, Bengalis, Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis alike. 

Suhrawardy lived during a time where he carried all these labels—as a Bengali politician during the Indian Independence movement, Partition and the first fifteen years of Pakistan. Born into a family of immense privilege during the turning point of Bengal’s history, Suhrawardy leveraged his education and career as a lawyer, union leader and politician to serve the underprivileged Muslims of Bengal and later, the Hindus of Pakistan.

Shaheed Suhrawardy Zindabad!” (Long Live Shaheed Suhrawardy!) were frequent slogans shouted by Bengalis in both British India and later Pakistan ever since Suhrawardy’s first elections in the 1930s. Just a decade before his 1956 state visit to the U.S. as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Suhrawardy was victorious in the 1946 general elections during the final year of British India which secured a mandate for Pakistan’s founding. In the decade prior in the 1937 Bengal Provincial Elections, he led the Muslim League to victory in Bengal which ushered in drastically needed socioeconomic reforms for the Muslims of Bengal. Before taking office as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Suhrawardy had already been the founder of Pakistan’s first opposition party (the Awami League), Chief Minister and Prime Minister of Undivided Bengal and the greatest lawyer in Pakistan.

A lifelong fighter for the Muslims of India and later Hindus of Pakistan, Suhrawardy was one of the great leaders of Bengal, India and Pakistan, taking a leading role in the politics of the subcontinent during and shortly after the fall of the British Raj. His education, life and legacy live on today through Pakistan’s foreign policy, India’s partition history and Bangladesh’s still-ruling Awami League Party—which he is the founding architect of.

Within pre-Partition Bengal and later Pakistan, Suhrawardy’s enmity with both the Bengali Hindu elites that would later mobilize against his idea of a United Bengal and the Pakistani military-bureaucratic elite that would impose the first military coup under his watch, foretell the relationship that newly independent Bangladesh would adopt with West Bengal and Pakistan. Tracing the footsteps of Bengal’s top Muslim League politician and Pakistan’s first successful opposition leader, we encounter not only the borders and roots of the reigning political party in Bangladesh, but the struggles that shape how the people of Bangladesh grew out of British India and Pakistan. 

Whether in the courtroom or in rallies, Suhrawardy was a powerfully persuasive public speaker which made him and the popular forces he led invincible in free and fair elections (1946 All Bengal Elections & 1954 East Bengal Elections). Recognition of Suhrawardy’s invincibility in the polls by Pakistan’s military bureaucratic elite would later drive the same elites to overthrow the civilian government with a coup and impose Martial Law in 1958 in order to preempt the general elections scheduled for early 1959. The end of Suhrawardy’s stellar career with Pakistan’s first coup, was as tragic as his political scapegoating by Indian vested interests for the 1946 Calcutta riots and his fall from grace in Bangladesh for falling short on his 1954 Jukto Front election promises.

Suhrawardy ultimately lived beyond his death through his favorite political lieutenant, the future Founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom Suhrawardy first met in 1937 as a cabinet minister on Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Haq’s cabinet while touring the Mission High School in Faridpur, where Mujib was an eighteen year old high school student.

Upon deep study of many primary sources of friends, family and foes of Suhrawardy, it is clear that assuming bad intent on behalf of such a tremendous figure is both disingenuous and tends to serve the interests of whoever is charging Suhrawardy with historical injustices. Suhrawardy ruled in three countries during the crucial Independence era, upholding democracy, the rule of law and diplomacy, but his policy decisions resulted in him being hated in some circles while endlessly adored in others.  

The events leading up to and following the Partition of India were some of the most important moments in the history of the Indian subcontinent and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was one of the makers of that history.

Awami League Year One: Suhrawardy and Mujib rallying in East Pakistan in 1949 for the Awami League in opposition to the ruling Muslim League, which Suhrawardy once made popular and victorious in the same land in 1946, in order to become the first successful opposition leader in Pakistan and the fifth Prime Minister in the country he secured a mandate for.

Born into a Line of Luminaries: The Suhrawardy Family of Bengal

Born in Midnapore, West Bengal in 1892, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was born into an illustrious Bengali Muslim family with over 900 years of recorded history as Sufi saints, poets, social reformers and politicians. 

His father, a man of distinguished learning and public service, was Sir Zahid Suhrawardy who served as the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court. He was knighted after retiring from the bar and when Zahid Suhrawardy passed away in 1949, the Pakistani English daily Dawn newspaper title read, “The Last Great Gentleman passes in Bengal.”

 His mother, the first Muslim woman to pass the Senior Cambridge Examination, was Khujista Banu Suhrawardiyya,  an academic fluent in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and English who served as the first Urdu literature examiner at Calcutta University. A veiled woman, Khujista Suhrawardiyya was a lifelong advocate of women’s education and social worker, who regularly visited the slums to provide the poor with education and educate them about health and sanitation.

The Suhrawardy family settled in Bengal when Sheikh Shahabuddin Suhrawardy (1145-1235), a major leader of the Suhrawardiyya Order of Sufism and author of Awarif Al-Ma’arif (Knowledge of the Learned), sent his disciples to spread Islam in Iran, Central Asia, Hindustan and Bengal. Shaikh Suhrawardy is the earliest ancestors of the Suhrawardy family of Bengal, whose ancestral home in the village of Sohraward, Iraq, is where the family gets its Arabic surname from. According to family tradition, Sheikh Suhrawardy’s father descended from Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddique, the first Caliph of Islam, while his mother descended from Hazrat Ali Abu Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, Suhrawardy was both a Sayyid (an Islamic nobility status conferred to the direct descendants of Abu Bakr) and a Siddique (an Islamic nobility status conferred to the direct descendants of Ali). 

These are ultimately caste labels that allowed the Suhrawardy family members to receive immense socioeconomic, vocational and educational benefits, simply through recognition of family lineage. In the era of Muslim rule in South Asia, upper caste Muslims or ashraf Muslims were settlers who descended from Muslim settlers during the Sultanate and Mughal era including Turks, Arabs, Afghans, Mughals or people of Iranian descent, while native converts into Islam were considered lower caste or ajlaf Muslims. The Suhrawardys were clear ashraf Muslims claiming descent from the first caliph of Islam, whose nobility was recognized as sufi leaders in the Court of Alauddin Khilji in 13th century Delhi just as well as it was in Bangladesh and Pakistan, where streets, parks, hospitals, sports stadiums and a medical college are named after Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.

Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College located in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Shaheed Suhrawardy Indoor Stadium located in Mirpur, Bangladesh.

However, lineage itself didn’t carry the weight of their name. The Suhrawardys’ actions did.

The Suhrawardys were actually the first Sufi order to arrive in the Indian subcontinent, before the Chishti Order, with Maulana Rukunuddin Suhrawardy being received by Sultan Alauddin Khilji in Delhi, kissing his feet upon their encounter. Hazrat Shah Jalal, the famous Sufi mystic who settled in Sylhet with over 360 followers in 1360, also belonged to this illustrious family. In West Bengal, the name of Maulana Obaidullah Suhrawardy (1834-1886) carries much reverence due to his pioneering role in the Islamic Renaissance movement in Bengal. Known as Behr-ul-Uloom (Ocean of Knowledge) for his vast knowledge as a linguist and educationalist, Maulana Obaidullah Suhrawardy established himself in Bengal as the first superintendent of the Dhaka Aliya Madrasa—which was the only institute in Eastern Bengal when it was founded on March 16, 1874, that taught English to Muslim students.

Standing from left to right: Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Hasan Shaheed Suhrawardy (brother) and Mr. M. Ikramullah (uncle). Seated is Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah (cousin).

Suhrawardy’s elder and only brother, Professor Hassan Shahid Suhrawardy, was a notable linguist and art critic who continued his studies in Russia following his graduation from Oxford in 1913. He was well-liked in Moscow and received his first teaching position as Professor of English at Moscow University. Escaping with Russian refugees during the Russian Revolution of 1922, he later returned to Kolkata as a Professor of Fine Arts at Calcutta University. 

Suhrawardy’s older brother was known affectionately as “Shahid Bhai,” while Suhrawardy himself was referred to as “Shaheed Bhai.” The two were the complete opposite in nature: Shahid was a quiet soul who enjoyed solitude and soft classical music, while Shaheed felt more at home in the middle of a crowd and enjoyed loud jazz music. Shahid found jazz music repulsive, always reminding Shaheed of his distaste towards it. “Shaheed Miya, please turn off that infernal din,” Shahid would request; to which Shaheed would slowly tone down his jazz music. More so, Shahid found politics to be much too vulgar for his liking. The two got along beautifully, once even moving back in with each other when Shahid was back teaching in Calcutta and Shaheed was active in the Muslim League. 

The two grew up in a loving home surrounded by family with towering pedigrees and professional reputations as well as a Bengali Muslim community that their ancestors lived among for generations. On occasions like Eid, the Suhrawardy household was brimming with people and aromas of all the Bengali dishes like halwa and savian, which Shaheed was always there to taste. Shaheed was a stern and unemotional, yet endlessly sociable young boy. From a young age, he was undeniably of gifted intellect and an even greater affinity for controlling and commanding crowds—whether in his hometown of Midnapore, London, Kolkata, Karachi or Dhaka.

Shaheed would playfully grab the plaits of his younger cousin, Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, who would grow up to be a lifelong intellectual and political ally of Shaheed as the first Pakistani woman to be elected to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in 1948 and later Ambassador to Morocco between 1964 and 1967. Shaista was also the first Muslim woman to receive a PhD from the University of London in 1940 and would go on to lead a pioneering career as a woman in public service in newly established Pakistan.

As a delegate to the United Nations in 1948, Shaista was the only Muslim and, besides Eleanor Roosevelt, the only other woman to help draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Shaista was a major advocate of freedom, equality and choice in the Declaration. She personally championed the inclusion of Article 16, on equal rights within marriage, which she believed was a universal method of combatting forced and child marriage. Being one of two women elected to serve on the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947, Shaista was one of Pakistan’s first politicians to advocate for her Bengali constituents, human rights and rights of religious minorities. Shaista’s most important accomplishment in Pakistan politics was her 1951 passage of personal laws guaranteeing Pakistani women the full inheritance rights against the wishes to traditionalists at the time.

Her autobiography, From Purdah to Parliament, tells the story of her life reflecting as one of the first South Asian Muslim women to leave purdah (the South Asian practice of women staying out of the view of men) and pursue not only a phenomenal education, but play an active role within the Indian Independence movement, Pakistan movement and later Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. Suhrawardy lived in a happy and highly educated home, surrounded by a community both in awe and appreciation of the Suhrawardy’s legacy and continuous contribution to the livelihood of Bengali Muslims during the British period.

Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah upon completion of her PhD from the University of London (1940).
Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah at her seat at the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (1948).
One of the most read books in Pakistan, From Purdah to Parliament, is the autobiography of Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah

Suhrawardy himself, just as many of his family members, gave great heedance to their family name because “it played a very important part in the molding of his character and values.” In the words of Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, “All of us of that generation, despite our best efforts to belittle it, felt the weight and the obligation of the family tradition which shaped our characters and fashioned our destinies, and because of it others seemed to regard us as a people apart and accepted much from us because we were Suhrawardys.” 

Even when Shaista’s family would visit Dhaka after Partition from their home in Karachi, she would warn her kids of mischief by reminding them, “every stick and stone there knows us.” 

Ultimately, the point to be made regarding Suhrawardy’s lineage is that his family directly benefited, in both repute, caste and socioeconomic mobility, from birth into this distinguished line of learned public servants and saints, renowned for their learning and piety rather than wealth, because as Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah mentions, “wealth is reckoned.” 

From Bengal to Britain: Young Shaheed learns the Ropes

Suhrawardy received his early education from his mother and maternal uncle, Sir Abdullah al-Mamun Suhrawardy, who was awarded the first PhD from Calcutta University for his dissertation on the Sources of Muslim Laws. While he spoke Urdu at home, where poetry from Ghalib, Urfi and Kabir filled the bookshelves alongside Western classics from Milton, Marlowe and Shakespeare, he excelled in Arabic and English in the classroom. He enrolled in the Calcutta Aliya Madrasa and graduated with honours in science from St. Xavier’s College. In fulfillment of his mother’s wishes, Suhrawardy also completed a Master of Arts in Arabic from Calcutta University in 1913. 

During the same year in 1913, he left Kolkata for England in pursuit of higher studies, graduating in science with honors from Oxford University. Suhrawardy, having also completed a BCL law degree from Oxford, was called to the Bar from Grey’s Inn in 1918. Having attained such a phenomenal education, a brilliant career was prophesied for Suhrawardy. However, he withdrew from a comfortable life of the bar in London and instead set his sights on politics of his homeland of Bengal. Living and studying in his family home in London between 1913 and 1920, Suhrawardy became involved in the Oxford Majlis, where he met Muslims students at Oxford from all over the world to debate and collaborate on issues such as the growing Indian Independence movement. In fact, when Suhrawardy’s older brother was studying at Oxford in 1913, he happened to be a student when Tagore became the first non-European to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and was also received by the Oxford Majlis.

When Suhrawardy returned home from London to Kolkata in 1920, he married Begum Naiz Fatima, the daughter of Sir Abdur Rahim, a judge of the Calcutta High Court. Together, they had a son and a daughter. Their son, Shahab Suhrawardy, died early in 1940, while pursuing his studies during his second year at Christ Church in Oxford which devastated Suhrawardy. Shahab’s death marked a dark point in Suhrawardy’s life where the crushing loss of his son made him seem like he aged twenty years while he was tirelessly organizing the Muslim League for the next half decade till the birth of Pakistan.

Their daughter, Begum Akhtar Suleiman, married Sir Shah Ahmed Suleman who was son of an esteemed judge at the Calcutta High Court, Justice Sir Shah Mohammad Suleman. Suhrawardy treated Suleman as a son and he always found warmth in the comfort of his daughter’s family–even taking his daughter to the U.S. during his 1956 state visit as Prime Minister of Pakistan. When Begum Akhtar’s father-in-law died, Suhrawardy would stay with them at their home. However, this was no substitute for having a family of his own at home and this was a comfort he never knew partially due to the nature of his work. 

Suhrawardy would marry again to a Russian actress of Polish descent named Vera Alexandrovna Tischenko in 1940. They had one son together named Rashid Suhrawardy, a British actor, who later picked up the acting name Robert Ashby. Rashid was Suhrawardy’s only surviving son, who recently passed away on February 7, 2019, kept very close ties with Bangladeshi leading politicians, academics and prominent figures and was himself a lifelong supporter of Bangladesh. 

Suhrawardy arguing before the Calcutta High Court in 1921.
Suhrawardy speaking at a Muslim League rally in 1936.

As a lawyer, Suhrawardy was a natural ace. Before Partition, when he practiced law in Kolkata, his clients ranged from everyday people, labor unions and Khilafat members. While in office, Suhrawardy would work 18 to 20 hours a day. After Partition, when he practiced law in Pakistan, his clients ranged from Muslim League leaders wrongfully charged with treason, Pakistani generals during the Rawalpindi Controversy and himself, when he was slapped with EBDO orders by Ayub Khan. 

His warm personality and baritone voice made him a pleasant presence, while also being a devastating legal practitioner. Never attacking his opponents or believing in political vindictiveness, Suhrawardy respectfully addressed his opponents as well as allies as family over a fire-side chat–even in the heat of argument. One courtroom adversary of Suhrawardy remarked about how legal arguments with Suhrawardy felt as if inanimate objects such as chairs and tables were also witnesses against you. This was the gift of gab and showmanship Suhrawardy possessed after completing all those years of his precious education at home and abroad. In Suhrawardy’s letters, legal transcripts and personal letters, there remains a consistent tone of strong commanding language accompanied with kind greetings and moral rectitude—whether he was addressing his arch-rival and the first Pakistani military dictator Ayub Khan from prison or his own niece, Salma Sobhan, for not being able to make her wedding because of Suhrawardy’s imprisonment. Suhrawardy’s restraint and standard of due respect to both ally and adversary, was admired as much as it was feared.

Located on the bank of the Hooghly River near the Victoria Memorial and Raj Bhavan, the Calcutta High Court is India’s oldest high court established on July 1, 1862. Suhrawardy as well as his father spent the bulk of their career working in this stately building.

The Calcutta High Court, where Suhrawardy and many of Bengal’s legal eagles would advocate and defend in court, became a public spectacle where masses of Kolkata would flock to court just to witness Suhrawardy make his case. Whether it was acquitting leaders of the Khilafat movement or innocent Muslims wrongfully jailed during the 1926 Calcutta Riots, Suhrawardy was always there and afterwards, people never failed to remind others how Suhrawardy saved them from the gallows.

Public service didn’t end in the courtroom for the talented Suhrawardy. He would soon find himself joining the Swaraj Party and later leading the Muslim Struggle alongside his uncles and many Bengali Independence luminaries of the 1920s and 40s including Chittaranjan Das, A.K. Fazlul Haq, Khwaja Nazimuddin and Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani. It was during this time that Suhrawardy decided to learn Bangla in order to better mobilize the Muslim masses of Bengal, who he hoped to represent and reorganize before the eve of Independence. As a native Urdu speaker, as many of the Muslims of Kolkata are historically, he picked up Bangla to better relate to the people he wished to represent. He learned the importance of close affiliation with his constituents after Khwaja Nazimuddin, a lifelong rival from a zamindar family within both the Muslim League and later Pakistan, was unseated in his own zamindar, demonstrating how ashraf Bengali Muslims could be both isolated and out of touch as a result of their caste privilege among Bengali Muslim masses. 

In the words of Suhrawardy himself, “the fact that I am Bengali is just as true as the fact that I am a Muslim.” Suhrawardy would speak his quickly acquired Bangla for the next twenty years of his political career, whether during his speeches during the 1954 Pakistan General elections or when meeting eighteen-year old Mujib while touring his high school in Faridpur in 1937.

Suhrawardy attending a wedding.

Tofazzul Isam aka ‘Manik Mia’, one of East Pakistan’s then-top political thinkers and Editor of Ittefaq, one of Bengal’s daily, remarked about Suhrawardy:

“Generally, rich people avoid and forget their poor relatives. But it was different with Shaheed Suhrawardy. He searched them out, visited their cottages, never hesitated to have meals with them and helped them generously. He could mix with the common people—slum dwellers, workers, laborers and peasants—to create confidence in them as easily as he trod among the statesmen of the world to explain Pakistan’s bonafides.”

With the gift of humility and empathy, while armed with the education and bravery to command the destiny of Bengal, Suhrawardy embarked on a forty year career in public service that would shape three countries. He kept his easy-going and warm personality to his last breath.

Entry into Politics: Shaheed joins the Muslim Struggle

1920 was a turbulent year in the Indian subcontinent. Three movements were shaping the social environment and Suhrawardy would join the fight in all three.

First, the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the upper-caste Bengali Hindus in better socioeconomic conditions and the larger and largely agriculturalist Bengali Muslim and lower-caste Hindu communities were coming to a tipping point. Kolkata was soon to become a killing field, where a century of communal hatred would play out.

Second, the All-India Muslim League party started in Dhaka in 1906 to protect Muslim interests in Bengal was losing influence and being reduced to a few Western arm-chair politicians. 

Lastly, World War I (1914-1919) had come to a close and with it, the Ottoman Caliphate was on the verge of abolishment and separation from its former territories in the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa. To Muslims in British India, it was seen as the fall of the last Islamic power they looked to for a source of pride. In Bengal, as well as throughout the Indian subcontinent, Muslims rose in solidarity and revolt through the Khilafat Movement against the British at home for its part in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Between 1919 and 1922, the emotional fervor felt by Muslims for the unconditional overthrow of the British Raj was endorsed by Gandhi as well, who applied a doctrine of noncooperation to protest against the British. Thousands of underpaid clerks left work alongside tens of thousands of students, while the Indian National Congress party boycotted British goods—namely textiles as their second most effective weapon. The streets of British India were filled with tremendous energy as every street corner had poems read enforcing this doctrine and expressing the need to fight in unison with Turkey. One such poem from this moment was the epic poem “Kemal Pasha” written by the Bengali rebel poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, in honor of Turkish Republic Founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Suhrawardy came home from Britain to a Bengal where the Khilafat movement and further socio economic problems were daily news. Many members of the Khilafat movement, such as Maulana Muhammad Ali, Maulana Shoukat Ali, Maulana Hazrat Mohani and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, had all been incarcerated. Pictures in the newspapers showed these renowned and courageous Muslim leaders unceremoniously marched wearing the garb of ordinary prisoners of the British Raj, where the prison uniform included half-sleeve shirts and shorts—a form of dress that prevented them from performing their prayers. Khilafat leaders were subjected to the indignity of wearing prison clothes that brought British India to an extremely dangerous point through clashing religion and politics.

Suhrawardy and his two uncles gave passionate speeches attacking the treatment of the prisoners, which was aimed at the current Home Minister, Sir Abdur Rahim, Suhrawardy’s father-in-law. The ordeal was so condemning that Suhrawardy himself thought it best not to visit his in-laws, who would raise his children even after his wife’s death, separating his family from that point on. 

Forming several Bengali Muslim political groups, Suhrawardy helped establish the Calcutta Khilafat Committee during the Turkish War of Independence and impending dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate.

Additionally, Suhrawardy made his official entry into politics with the Swaraj movement. Swaraj, meaning self-rule, was the preeminent Indian Independence movement started by Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati in 1876, when he first gave the call for Swaraj as “India for Indians.” In the 1920s, the prevailing All-India Congress under Gandhi had split into the Swaraj Party led by Motilal Nehru in North India and Chittaranjan Das in Bengal. 

In 1923, Das entered into a pact with other Muslim leaders of Bengal known as the Bengal Pact, which afforded Muslims of Bengal separate representation through separate electorates on the basis of population. According to the Pact, Muslims of Bengal would get 55% of government appointments until a time came where the disparity between Hindus disappeared. Additionally, the position of Mayor of Calcutta would alternate between a Muslim and a Hindu every three years and the Calcutta Corporation, originally a monopoly for Hindus, had seats reserved for Muslims. 

Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das led the Bengal Pact from 1921 till his death in 1925 as a leader of the Swaraj Party. He is remembered fondly for his embrace of Hindu-Muslim Unity and remembered by Suhrawardy as the “greatest Bengali, the greatest Indian, the very greatest.”


Das was a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity, who Suhrawardy deeply respected and believed that had he lived beyond 1925, Bengal would have possibly avoided Partition. To Suhrawardy, Das was a magnificent statesman and also the only Hindu in the forefront of politics who believed that without Hindu-Muslim understanding, there could never be solutions to the many problems the country faced. In Suhrawardy’s own words, Das was “the greatest Bengali” and his loving political mentor.

Beyond the backdrop of the Khilafat movement was the much harsher reality of the extremely poor position Muslims were in all throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Following the fall of the Mughals, historic and economic factors usurped Muslims from their ruling class status which they enjoyed for 551 years. The Mughal ruling class of Bengal were descendants of Mughal court officials or commanders in the Mughal army with no ties to the land.  While the elites gradually disintegrated with the rise of the East India Company, the majority of Bengal’s population were Muslim converts from Hinduism seeking to escape caste oppression. Largely agricultural laborers, the Bengali Muslim masses faced impoverishment after the East India Company passed the Regulating Act of 1773 after ruthlessly extracting from Bengal for 16 years. This Permanent Settlement’s indiscriminate land resumption turned  thousands into landless laborers, while elevating the Hindu debt collector at the expense of the Muslim landlord and peasant.

The result of the Permanent Settlement Act and the overall air of suspicion and distrust Muslims were treated with throughout the Indian subcontinent due to their more prominent role in the 1857 First Indian War of Independence. Even a century after the East India Company’s first victory and foothold in Bengal, the shadowy presence of a Muslim emperor ruling India had inspired soldiers within the rank of the East India Company to revolt. Describing the relative position of Hindu and Muslims in newly established British India, in the words of Scottish historian and member of the Indian Civil Service, William Wilson Hunter:

” The power had virtually passed into British hands after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, but the shadowy figure of the Muslim Emperor continued to remain in the Red Fort of Delhi, and the fiction of his rule was maintained by the meticulous observance of protocol. The Mutiny of 1857, put an end to this game of make-believe, it dealt a shattering blow to the Muslims of India, their pride humbled, their prestige as a ruling class laid in dust. For the Hindus it merely meant a change of masters, for the Muslims it meant becoming the ruled instead of the rulers.

Hunter’s Mussalmans of Bengal (1871)

Whereas during the Mughal era, Dhaka was a hub for commerce, industry and trade; during the British era, the former fishing village turned second city of Empire by the British of Calcutta would assume the new role as center of Bengal’s economic, political and financial activity. Additionally, West Bengal’s first university established in 1817, while Bangladesh’s first university was founded in 1912, further demonstrates the hegemony that focused on Calcutta as the core of Bengal, devoid of Muslim masses and their loyalties to a former era.

The University of Dhaka was the first university in East Bengal, built in 1912 in Dhaka.
Presidency University was the first university in West Bengal, built in 1817 as Hindu College and later established as the first multidisciplinary, Western-style institution in Asia on January 24, 1857.
The 1905 Partition of Bengal depicted in a map.

Muslim interests finally united and formed a platform in 1906 at the venue of the Ahsan Manzil in Dhaka, the royal residence of the Nawab of Dhaka. A party comprised of Muslim landlords, nawabs, businessmen and other leading figures established the All India Muslim League in response to the 1905 Bengal Partition, where the British Empire partitioned the first border between East and West Bengal.  

Ahsan Manzil in Dhaka where the first All-India Muslim League meeting was convened in 1906.

This was seen by Bengalis as an attempt to consolidate the industrial and academic institutions of Kolkata in Hindu-majority West Bengal to the detriment of Muslim-majority East Bengal as punishment for rebel activity against the British. The Muslim League sought to safeguard the interests of Muslims throughout the South Asian subcontinent by organizing for the creation of an independent state separate within British Indian territory as a homeland for Muslims in the South Asian subcontinent. 

The All India Muslim League (1936)
The Hindu Mahasabha (1944)

However, Muslims weren’t alone in organizing the need to promote their pan-Indian interests in the form of a political party after the 1905 Bengal Partition, as the Hindu Mahasabha rose in opposition in order to safeguard the Hindu interests. The Hindu Mahsabha similarly sought out economic prosperity, political representation and social harmony for Hindu community members. In the ranks of the Hindu Mahasabha’s upper echelons included Hindutva ideology founder Vinayak Davodar Savarkar and Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mukherjee, a Bengali Brahmin contemporary of Suhrawardy who would lead the charge against the United Bengal Plan and establish West Bengal as a state within India.

By the eve of the reorganization of the Muslim League in Bengal during the early decades of the twentieth century, between 95-98% of land cultivators were Muslim whereas 99% of moneylenders and 90% of landowners and big zamindars were Hindu. More pressing, most of the agricultural laborers were illiterate, which led to zamindars arbitrarily charging them whatever they wanted, often at exponential rates of exploitation and eventual indentured servitude of the largely Muslim working class of Bengal.

Murshidabad in West Bengal was the royal capital of Bengal during the Mughal Empire.
Calcutta in West Bengal was the second city of the British Empire.

During these crushing times for the Muslims of Bengal, Muslim League organizers like Suhrawardy worked tirelessly. First, Suhrawardy organized over 36 labor unions for the working-class, urban Muslims of Kolkata. In the words of Suhrawardy himself recounting his major contributions in his Memoirs:

“I organized a large number of labor unions and employees unions, some communal and some general, such as seamen, railway employees, jute and cotton mill laborers, rickshaw pullers, hackney carriage and buffalo cart drivers and khansamas (butlers) and at one time had as many as 36 trade unions as members of a Chamber of Labor I had founded to oppose communist labor organizations (I paraded a blue flag in opposition to the Red).”

In 1935, the Government of India Act was passed, which provisioned self-government to elected Indian leaders and allowed provinces the ability to elect Ministers to their Provincial Legislatures. After this act, Suhrawardy founded the Independent Muslim Party to fight in elections in Bengal, organizing Muslims based on a membership fee of two annas. Making his political fort in Calcutta, the nerve center of Indian politics, he organized a tabligh, ashura and numerous conferences to draw public support for independence. At the same time, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had recently returned to India from London with hopes of taking charge of the Muslim League as a mass organization with a membership fee of two annas as well. 

“I organized a large number of labor unions and employees unions, some communal and some general, such as seamen, railway employees, jute and cotton mill laborers, rickshaw pullers, hackney carriage and buffalo cart drivers and khansamas (butlers) and at one time had as many as 36 trade unions as members of a Chamber of Labor I had founded to oppose communist labor organizations (I paraded a blue flag in opposition to the Red).”

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy regarding his early organizing with Kolkata labor unions

Before the crucial 1937 elections, the Muslim League in Bengal was reduced to a couple of arm-chair politicians and a prominent son of the soil in East Bengal, A.K. Fazlul Haq, had just recently broken away from the Muslim League and organized the Krishak Proja Party (KPP), which translates into the ‘Agricultural People’s Party,’ to contest the 1937 elections. A.K. Fazlul Haq was later chosen by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to propose the Pakistan Resolution during a Muslim League meeting on March 23, 1940. In honor of Fazlul Haq’s brilliant advocacy for rural people of East Bengal, he is given the honorific title of “Sher-e-Bangla,” meaning ‘Tiger of Bengal.’

The Muslim business community of Calcutta, led by the Hassan Ispahani, invited Jinnah and confided within him their fear that the Muslim League had no future in Bengal without Suhrawardy. Fully aware of the gravity of the situation and heeding the Ispahanis’ advice, Jinnah organized a team including Khwaja Nazimuddin, Abul Hassan, Abdur Rahman Siddique and Hassan Ispahani to persuade Suhrawardy to join the Muslim League.

After initial hesitation, Suhrawardy agreed to join the Muslim League on the basis that is was an All-India organization. In affiliating with the All-India Muslim League with Jinnah as its President, Suhrawardy became the General Secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League (BPML) in 1936. Aga Khan and the New Muslim Majlis led by the Isphanis and now Suhrawardy’s IML all merged with the Muslim League.

The 1937 election was a stand-off between the KPP and BPML for the 119 Muslim seats in a House of 250. The resulting 1937 Proja-League government put Haq as Minister of Labor and Commerce while Suhrawardy would be appointed as Labor Minister. 

The Muslim League government’s greatest achievement was the passing of the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1938 and establishment of the Debt Settlement Board. The passing of the Tenancy Act relieved the Muslim middle and working class so greatly that not passing the bill feared “no-rent campaign, coupled with violence and incendiaries, which nothing whatsoever can check.” 

To Bengalis, the Muslim League’s ascent and fulfillment of their promise towards the masses represented the first time since Akbar the Great’s annexation of Bengal into the Mughal Empire in 1576, that Bengalis possessed a government of their choice which served their interests effectively. 

On another front that would prove itself true a century later, Muslim League leaders gathered in Lahore in order to pass the landmark Lahore Resolution on March 23, 1940, which Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Haq presented at the request of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The Lahore Resolution stated that there were two predominantly sovereign Muslim states within India where Muslims predominated, including Bengal and Assam to the East and Baluchistan, Sindh, Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP) to the West.

However, in 1941, Jinnah and Haq had a verbal confrontation after which Haq constituted a second ministry with Hindu Mahasabha leader Syama Prasad Mukherjee, as his deputy. 

Everywhere Fazlul Haq went, he was greeted with tomatoes and rotten eggs while black flags were hoisted all around him for his alliance with Mukherjee and the Hindu elite they represented. Taking advantage of the Syama-Haq Ministry’s unpopularity, Suhrawardy and the Muslim League greatly gained influence, but now had to deal with the coming atrocities of World War II and the Partition.

Once in Delhi with his cousin, Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, Suhrawardy was on his way to meeting the Spanish Ambassador after tea with Shaista, when she asked: “Why on earth would you join the Muslim League? You don’t seem like a Muslim League type of person.” 

After a brief moment of pause, Suhrawardy responded, “I joined the Muslim League so the Muslims of India are not doomed to remaining the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. I want them to have a chance.” Suhrawardy demonstrated his understanding of a Muslim homeland as a Muslim-majority state in which economic prosperity, political trajectory and minority rights were safeguarded through democratic institutions; not a theocracy that governs, polices and manipulates the population under the guise of religious duty or unity.

This was the voice of the leader of the Muslims of Bengal, who made alliances with whoever he felt at the time had their best interests at heart.

Suhrawardy speaking at a Muslim League rally in Bengal (1937).

Leading the Charge for Pakistan: Muslim League to Muslim State

After the Calcutta riots of 1926, Suhrawardy grew increasingly disappointed and distrustful of his Hindu colleagues, who he felt showed little regard for the majority Muslims that were killed in the riots. The riots started over legal disputes between Hindus accused of disturbing Muslims by playing loud music near mosques and Muslims accused of slaughtering cows outside of specified areas. Beyond cow slaughter and loud music being played near mosques, was the more pressing tension of Hindu-Muslim socioeconomic class differences. 

Muslim laborers came home on the day of the riot to their neighborhoods set ablaze and their families slaughtered, while being met with a majority Hindu police force which arbitrarily imprisoned Muslims during the riots. In the aftermath of the riots, 64 Muslims were indicted with murder charges while only one Hindu was similarly indicted on murder charges during the communal riot. This, in addition to the fact that Hindus constituted 78% of the higher and lower ranks of the Calcutta police, showed that communal tensions were at a fatal tipping point in Calcutta as Muslims were systematically killed and incarcerated.

The spirit of Chittaranjan Das had left with his death, shattering the Hindu-Muslim Unity witnessed in Bengal. 

Suhrawardy joined Khwaja Nazimuddin’s Ministry as Civil Supplies Minister on April 24, 1943, following the fall of the Shyama-Haq coalition. World War II was now front and center for British India and Suhrawardy and Nazimuddin were at the helm of Bengal. Bordering British India’s easternmost territory in Bengal, present-day Myanmar was coming under occupation of the Japanese Empire. Japanese forces tacitly approved mass riots in the Arakan state bordering Bengal, where the ethnic Chin and Bamar people were able to attack Rohingya and other South Asian people who were brought into then-British Burma for purposes of helping with the rice cultivation. The Japanese even bombed Kolkata on December 20, 1942 during the heat of World War II.

In response to the threat of a Japanese invasion on British India through Bengal, Nazimuddin and Suhrawardy implemented a scorched earth policy by burning thousands of Bengali fishing boats near Burma to ward them off. While the threat of Japanese invasion during World War II was successfully maneuvered, their tactics of burning fishing boats would contribute to a much larger internal catastrophe—the 1943 Bengal Famine.

The Bengal Famine was initiated by rank incompetency of the British Indian authorities from the year prior. In 1942, the former Prime Minister of Bengal, Fazlul Haq, bought all food grain at high prices, which never dropped. In the Delhi Food Conference in December 1942, Haq assured that there was no potential for food shortage in Bengal, which Suhrawardy vehemently opposed, pointing to a two season failure of crops which actually meant an impending famine was underway. However, as a result of Haq’s assurances, the British Indian government did not make preparations to send food grain to Bengal. In Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah’s Biography of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, she blames black marketers who would hoard food.

Burma’s occupation meant that Bengal’s provincial supplier of food was cut off. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a close political protégé of Suhrawardy at the time, noted that food grain was not available at the time, even for purchase. Suhrawardy and Nazimuddin’s scorched earth policy destroyed large river crafts which were used for transporting food, while soldiers had priority over food grain and supplementary foods like eggs, chickens, bananas, vegetables, coconuts and pulses due to the policies of Winston Churchill. 

Not backing down, Suhrawardy immediately upon taking his oath of office, made a radio broadcast telling his listeners that he feared over 20 million might die because of the failure to secure an arrangement for rice. He promised the people that he would do everything in his power to allocate food grain from other provinces of British India to mitigate the famine. Suhrawardy fought with the central government in order to force the allocation of food grain from surplus provinces such as Assam, Bihar, Orissa and western states such as Punjab with partial success. Bihar, in particular, refused to send any grain which was influenced by the Indian National Congress’s hold over Bihar and contempt toward the Muslim League in spite of the devastation and deaths in the province. Within cities, Suhrawardy commissioned the opening of ration shops for urban residents who could purchase food and free gruel kitchens for mass feeding for poor villagers. Lastly, auxiliary hospitals were commissioned by Suhrawardy to provide medical treatment for famished people and others suffering from diarrhoeal disease.

Despite Suhrawardy’s best efforts and the insufficient support from other provinces, nearly 5 million people died in the 1943 Bengal Famine. This was seen as an artificial killing, blamed on either Churchill for prioritizing food grain for the army or Suhrawardy for not doing enough to address the crisis within his post at the time. The memories, stories and lasting legacy of the 1943 Bengal Famine lives on through the immortalized charcoal sketches of Bangladeshi artist Zainul Abedin.

However, while he would maintain his leadership role over Muslims by complying to join the Muslim League after pressure from Jinnah, Suhrawardy deeply felt tied to Bengal as a whole. On the eve of the 1946 General Elections, Suhrawardy as General Secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League was given the responsibility of organizing the general elections in Bengal. Taking this task on headfirst, Suhrawardy toured the country two decades after his entry into politics; this time going to the most remote parts of the country to mobilize the Muslim masses. 

Suhrawardy’s Bengal Provincial Muslim League captured 114 out of 119 Muslim seats of the Provincial Assembly, while Fazlul Haq’s KPP only secured five seats in opposition. 

The resounding Muslim League victory in Bengal was a personal triumph for Suhrawardy, who assumed the role of Prime Minister of Bengal. Receiving a personal congratulatory message from Jinnah, Suhrawardy was elected leader on April 3, 1946 and formed his ministry on April 24, 1946. 

Bengal’s Muslim League victory not only saved the Muslim League as the only province which voted for it, it saved the party from near extinction, carrying with it the dying dreams of creating Pakistan. The three other Muslim-majority provinces—-Punjab, Sindh and NWFP—-voted against the Muslim League, meaning Bengal served as Jinnah’s only pro-Pakistan province. Jinnah had only succeeded in one out of four Muslim majority provinces, putting Jinnah in an awkward position in convincing the British and Indian National Congress that Muslims of the British Raj wanted Pakistan. Only Bengal served his purpose, although Muslims in the Muslim-minority provinces of the Subcontinent voted solidly for the Muslim League.

In Jinnah’s own words, “Had Suhrawardy not won the general election in 1946, in the light of total failure of the Muslim League in all the other Muslim majority provinces, there would have been no Pakistan.” 

The fruits of Suhrawardy’s two decades as an organizer won him, the Muslims of Bengal and future Pakistanis, a guarantee of the inevitable creation of Pakistan. Suhrawardy was the architect of the Muslim League in Bengal, ultimately paving the way for the Partition of India.

Suhrawardy ran the first pre-Partition Muslim League registry in Bengal, which was also the only Muslim League ministry in all of the subcontinent. Suhrawardy’s landmark accomplishment for Pakistan with his Muslim League victory in Bengal, cemented himself as a founding father of Pakistan. His first rural base in politics was in and around Calcutta—through his building organizations with urban workers including jute and textile mill workers, rickshaw pullers and hotel employees.

“Had Suhrawardy not won the general election in 1946, in the light of total failure of the Muslim League in all the other Muslim majority provinces, there would have been no Pakistan”

Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah upon news of Suhrawardy’s 1946 general election victory in Bengal on behalf of the Muslim League.

Following the election, a convention was called by the Muslim League at the suggestion of Suhrawardy on April 7, 1946, at Delhi’s Muhammadan Anglo-Arabic College ground. The convention was meant to discuss the potential of a full Muslim quota on the interim central cabinet after Independence, which Jinnah denied as he was set on the creation of two sovereign Muslim states. Seeing his dream of Pakistan in sight, Jinnah willingly overlooked the geographical separation, differences in lingua franca, customs, social systems, food and dress of the two Pakistans. The only bond between the two to-be wings of Pakistan, was religion.

More importantly, the struggle for Pakistan in Bengal was tied to the Bengali Muslims centuries-long emancipation on not just religious grounds, but economic grounds against the more affluent Hindu zamindar and mahajans that exercised unchecked and total economic control with the fall of the Mughals and the rise of the British East India Company. Suhrawardy was a symbol of not just Muslim unity in Bengal, but of socioeconomic trajectory for the Muslim masses of Bengal and caste liberation.

Suhrawardy’s post-1946 election alignment with Jinnah on a united Pakistan between Bengal and the Western provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and NWFP, questions people to this day. The quick answer is that the greater fear of Hindu domination under the Congress demand for Akhand Bharat (undivided India), pushed Suhrawardy to join Bengal with Jinnah’s Pakistan. Suhrawardy felt that Bengal as an independent, sovereign state, would not sustain itself and find itself playing into Congress hands.

1946 Kolkata Riots

In direct retaliation to the Muslim League, the Viceroy of India which serves as the British Crown’s top representative, General Archibald Wavell, called on the Congress government to launch an interim government which the Muslim League refused to take part in on August 16, 1946. This day in history became marked in blood as Direct Action Day. Muslims of Bengal were expected to have a huge gathering and proclaim their adherence to Pakistan. For this occasion, Suhrawardy declared a holiday on Direct Action Day, which on previous occasions, led to violence between Hindus and Muslims with people being dragged out of their car and assaulted.

Direct Action Day coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims were fasting. This holiday was also on a Friday, where Muslims gathered at the mosques in their weekly congregation. Suhrawardy was addressing a crowd at the Ochtierony Monument Maidan where people flocked from all over the city and suburbs, when he heard of obstructions and Muslims being attacked by Hindus in orchestrated anti-Muslim riots.

Calcutta was a city with a population of 6 million at the time, which had a police force of 1,200 of whom, only 63 were Muslim. Among those in the rank of officer, only one Deputy Comissioner and an Officer-in-Charge were Muslim with the remainder Hindus. 

Suspecting that the Calcutta police force was both insufficient and questionable in their loyalties and systemic compliance towards anti-Muslim violence, Suhrawardy decided to appoint 1,200 trained Punjabi Muslim sepahis in order to achieve equity in the police force. Hindu leaders opposed and protested this move, urging the Governor to cease the deployment of Punjabi Muslim sepahis and arrange for the same number of Bengali Muslim Sephahis. To this request, Suhrawardy responded that Bengali Muslim sepahis were not readily available as the situation demanded. Additionally, he made the argument that the Calcutta police force was predominantly Sikh, Gurkha, Rajput and Jat, with no Bengali Hindus.

Suhrawardy ordered Muslim Officers-in-Charge to be posted in 21 of 22 thanas (police stations), while he personally operated from the Police Control Room from a British officer to mobilize the police force into quelling the riots. Suhrawardy’s radio broadcast during the riots begins with, “I come in the interest of peace.”

Suhrawardy’s broadcast during the 1946 Kolkata riots.

Indeed, Suhrawardy worked tirelessly during the riots to come to the help of anyone and everyone he could. Hassan Ispahani recounts how during the riots, Suhrawardy arranged free lodging and food for many Hindu families and ninety-five Hindu milkmen, in addition to his own barber, Mogen Sheet, and his washerman, Kunja Dhopa. Ispahani mentions, “I have not seen a man work so hard and act so swiftly to try and control a conflagration as Suhrawardy did.”

The riots drew on for four days, causing the Indian Army to be deployed. The British government was drawn to attention and Viceroy Wavell visited Calcutta on August 25 to witness the scene of the carnage. 

Wavell was received by a burnt hellscape of a city built by East India Company official, John Charnock, covered in rubble, bodies and thousands of posters condemning Wavell, with his name written in red ink. Wavell asked Suhrawardy how it was that he could be held responsible for the riot?

Suhrawardy explained that this riot was the consequence of the formation of an interim government without proper Muslim League representation and the longer held belief of deliberate creation of Hindu-Muslim misunderstanding as a rationale to hand over power to the Indian National Congress Party.

Suhrawardy doubly warned that what happened in Bengal would repeat itself all over India unless the British realized that a united India was impossible and the Muslim League was essential to save India from impending civil war.

A meeting was held two days later between Jinnah, Suhrawardy and Wavell in order to accept the Muslim League demand. Subsequently, the Muslim League announced their decision to join Pandit Nehru’s interim government on October 15, 1946.

Bathed in the blood of Bengalis, Jinnah accomplished through Calcutta’s riots the guarantee of Pakistan’s birth as a political victory. The 1946 Calcutta Killings became immortalized throughout the subcontinent as the ‘Great Calcutta Killings.’ This momentum for Pakistan under the threat of potential civil war through the Subcontinent, made the inevitability of Pakistan a daily topic of conversation. 

As a result the Attlee British government decided on February 24, 1947, that the British would withdraw no later than 1948, with the final partitioning of India being adjudicated to Louis Mountbatten rather than Wavell.

To the detriment of Muslims, Mountbatten had “won the imagination of Nehru” and persisted on the idea of undivided India, which fell on deaf ears with increasing anarchy and threats of rioting. On June 3, 1947, Mountbatten declared a plan to finally partition India and secure a British withdrawal within ten weeks, setting the date of Partition to be August 14, 1947.

Cyrille Radcliffe, a High Court Judge of England, was a personal friend of Jinnah and on their integrity, laid the hopes of the final partitioning of Punjab and Bengal to settle the borders of Pakistan.

The United Bengal Plan

When the Partition plan was accepted, Suhrawardy rejected the Partition of Bengal particularly on the grounds that all of Bengal was a Muslim majority province. Backing Suhrawardy, Jinnah also professed that on no account would he accept a “mutilated, truncated, moth-eaten Pakistan.” Jinnah once even asked what good was Bengal without Calcutta, given all the industrial and political capital concentrated in West Bengal, while East Bengal was considered a breadbasket.

To prevent the modern-day division of Bengal, Suhrawardy reintroduced his 1933 United Bengal Plan, arguing for an independent, sovereign Bengal as an independent state. While advocates and admirers credit Suhrawardy for the United Bengal Plan, past and present critics on this idea accuse him of the ‘Greater Bengal Scheme.’ The movement for United Bengal was no secret or covert proposal, as Hindu and Muslim politicians across the subcontinent pledged support for this arrangement—showing early resistance against the Two-Nation thesis insisting on two nations within South Asia based on religion hammered down by the British, Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. Given the possibility and trajectory of a United Bengal, it is safe to conclude that a Three-Nation thesis was equally viable for a short period.

In February 1947, Abul Hashim and Sarat Chandra Bose discussed a plan for an independent, sovereign Bengal composed of Bengali-speaking people of Eastern India from Purnea in Bihar to Assam in the further-east. However, immediately upon divulging this plan, the Hindu Mahasabha vehemently rejected this plan entirely and demanded the partition of Bengal with Shyama Prasad Mukherjee at the lead.

Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee was an Indian politician, academic and lawyer who served as Minister of Industry and Supply under Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet.

He resigned from Nehru’s cabinet after the Nehru-Liaquat pacts and took help from the RSS in order to start the Bharatiya Jana Sangh party, the predecessor to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

An initial ally and then life-long adversary of Suhrawardy, Syama Prasad Mukherjee is known as the Father of West Bengal. He, like Suhrawardy, grew up in a very privileged Bengali family in Kolkata, whose father was also a Calcutta High Court Justice and who also finished his studies and law degree at Oxford. The only difference was Mukherjee was born into a Bengali Brahmin family, and unlike Chittaranjan Das who enshrined Hindu-Muslim unity in Bengal, Mukherjee promoted division on communal grounds based on fear of further rioting. Mukherjee would become a leading voice of the Hindu Mahasabha. 

Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee’s speech in the Constituent Assembly of India on December 17, 1947 regarding his opposition to an amendment that the resolution (to frame the Constitution) could not be passed until both Indian States and Muslim League were enabled to attend the Constituent Assembly.

After witnessing the Noakhali riots of 1946, where Bengalis Hindus in Muslim-majority East Bengal were killed in large numbers in reaction to the Great Calcutta Killings, Mukherjee was set on his resolve for a Bengali Hindu Homeland within the Indian Union. To Mukherjee, a “Hindu could not live with respect in Pakistan,” and the Muslim League desire to incorporate all of Bengal as an independent, sovereign state is actually “a trap of the Muslim League” to make Bengal a Muslim-majority state.

On April 27, 1947, Prime Minister of Undivided Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, first openly proposed the United Bengal Sovereign State plan at a press conference in Delhi.

“Let us consider for a second the potential of a United Bengal. It will be a great country indeed, the richest and the most prosperous in India, capable of giving people a high standard of living, where a great people will be able to rise to the fullest height of their stature, a land that will truly be plentiful. It will be rich in agriculture, rich in industry, and commerce and in course of time, it will be one of the most powerful and progressive states of the world. If Bengal remains united, this will be no dream, no fantasy.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy proposing the United Bengal Plan (Delhi, June 3, 1947)

The Muslim League’s sudden and successful foray into politics, winning in Bengal and establishing the first pre-Partition Ministry in 1946, completely took the Bengali Brahmin Bhadrolok class of Kolkata by surprise. Only two decades ago, they had witnessed the Bengal Pact make breakthrough inclusions of the Muslim community which they then acknowledged had enormous socioeconomic disparities that required addressing. However, to see the same Muslim community form and support a Muslim state throughout India, having won its foothold first and only in Bengal, surely had adverse effects within the Seth, the Bhadrolok class, which Mukherjee successfully manipulated through his Bengali Hindu Homeland Movement. 

The overwhelming support against the United Bengal Plan within West Bengal, only put on display the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha’s view towards Muslims. 

The final Partition of Bengal was to be a crime which many Bengalis were complicit in, while others considered the alternative of uniting Bengal to be the bigger crime—a sentiment shared by Bengalis to this day. To many, Mukherjee is a divider of Bengal, while others consider Suhrawardy the true divider of Bengal. 

Ultimately, in the clash between Suhrawardy and Mukherjee for a United Bengal or a divided Bengal between India and Pakistan, divided Bengal became reality. Mukherjee and the Hindu Mahasabha succeeded in securing a Bengali homeland within the Indian union which we know today as West Bengal, while the remaining territory went to Pakistan.

The two crucial historical moments that define their polarizing, are the 1946 Calcutta riots and Mukherjee’s mustering of the Bengali Hindu Homeland Movement later in 1947 against the proposal of Suhrawardy’s United Bengal Plan. 

The Muslim League, being the premier threat to Congress in 1946, was only in power in Bengal. The riots happening under Suhrawardy’s watch, was perfect fodder for the virulently anti-Muslim League Hindu Mahasabha propaganda machine, which aligned with Congress and British interests to shift blame solely on the Muslim League for their collective political gain. The riots were immortalized along with Suhrawardy’s legacy in his hometown of Midnapore, within his own state of West Bengal. 

He is remembered in his birth land as the “Butcher of Bengal” for his role as Prime Minister of Bengal during the Calcutta 1946 riots. Suhrawardy had enlisted an additional 1,200 Punjabi Muslim sepahis as a cautionary deterrence measure against a massive anti-Muslim onslaught considering the Calcutta Police Force’s demographics and experience from the 1926 Riots. However, the propaganda machine has embedded their scapegoating and Congress-era villainization of Suhrawardy into the historical memory of West Bengal, painting Suhrawardy as not just complicit but strategically intentional, in the greater scheme of turning Bengal into an independent, Muslim-majority state. 

Oftentimes those who believe Suhrawardy divided Bengal, not only believe that Suhrawardy deservedly fits the label of the “Butcher of Bengal,” but also oppose the United Bengal Plan for religious demographic reasons not explicitly mentioned. 

This paves the way for those who believe Mukherjee divided Bengal. People who were pro-United Bengal Plan had no reservations towards and were indeed proud of a Muslim League government under Suhrawardy as a landmark indicator of the socioeconomic and political success of the long-stagnant Muslims of Bengal. The United Bengal Plan was the only way to conserve the link between Dhaka and Calcutta, keeping Mother Bengal whole and in one piece. 

So when Mukherjee quickly and cleverly organized the Hindu Homeland Movement, the fact that Bengalis themselves would prevent the unity of Bengal was hard to comprehend. However, once pondering the demographic concerns that Kolkata’s new Hindu-majority considered upon thought of a post-Partition, United Bengal, it became clear how self interests played out in the seemingly inevitable partition of Undivided Bengal into West Bengal and East Pakistan. To many, it did not require a moment’s thought to consider why a core of politicians in West Bengal rejected and prevented the possibility of a United Bengal. 

A Bengal won, envisioned and predominantly populated by Muslims, was not a Bengal that as Mukherjee put it, could allow “Hindus to live with respect.” This psychology of division glorifies one at the expense of the other and lives on to this day.

Given Bangladesh’s economic trajectory after independence from Pakistan, earning the position of the world’s 41st largest economy with a GDP of $324 billion as of 2021, while West Bengal’s GDP sits at nearly half of Bangladesh at $180 billion with its position as a border state within India, demonstrates that Suhrawardy’s promises proved to true while Mukherjee’s obsessive preservation of a Hindu demographic majority in and around Kolkata, has failed to ensure economic prosperity. The capacity of an independent, sovereign nation-state is clear when considering the paths a once-wealthier West Bengal and a now-wealthier Bangladesh have taken. Although, it should be mentioned that the independence of Bangladesh was not an alternative Suhrawardy would have had hope for and that Awami League offices opened in Kolkata during the 1971 Liberation War aided in the successful independence of Bangladesh.

Suhrawardy was to be the final Prime Minister of Undivided Bengal—-an entity partitioned just as quickly as it was reunited following the 1906 Partition of Bengal. How people can celebrate and appreciate what was initially perceived as an injustice, shows how the last 40 decades of British occupation divided Bengalis in particular.

Unfinished Business: Gandhi-Suhrawardy Peace Missions & the Price of Tolerance

After Partition, Suhrawardy’s preoccupation was immediately set on the Muslims of Calcutta. Most, if not all of the Muslims in the Calcutta Police Force, had migrated with their families to East Pakistan, leaving the Muslim population in Kolkata defenseless and terrified. Among the many threats that faced them, were the organized militias of the Rashtrya Syamsevak Sangh (RSS) which had set out to kill both Suhrawardy and Gandhi for their famous peace missions.

According to Shaista Suhrawardy, “he lived like Gandhi, led meetings like Gandhi and even ate like Gandhi and everyone knew how Gandhi ate.” The Peace Missions which had started before Partition, continued even after with Suhrawardy and Gandhi still visiting the sites of communal violence. Risking their lives on every occasion, Gandhi and Suhrawardy were able to quell rioting crowds through sheer force of personality. A while after the Calcutta riots, a crowd incited and screamed at Suhrawardy calling him “the murderer” and “to kill him, Suhrawardy is responsible.” Suhrawardy immediately turned to the crowd and proclaimed, “we are all responsible,” staring the crowd that once looked at him with bloodlust into the broader realization, stopping the riot then and there. 

Still, the RSS made clear that Suhrawardy and Gandhi were at the top of their list for bringing the Hindus to nonviolence while Muslims supposedly attacked them defenseless as a result of Gandhi’s peace mission. On one occasion, an RSS assassin was outside a gurudwara where Suhrawardy and Gandhi stayed. Mistaking Suhrawardy, who was in deep meditation at the time, for a monk, the assassin was unsuccessful in murdering Suhrawardy in 1947. Unfortunately for Gandhi, the case was different as an RSS assassin shot Gandhi to death after one of his prayers.

Suhrawardy (left) and Gandhi (second to the right) escorting their countryfolk home during their famous peace missions (Noakhali, 1947).

Suhrawardy wished to still run for politics in Pakistan as an Indian citizen, but was unceremoniously vacated from his seat. In newly-created East Pakistan, Suhrawardy’s longtime Bengali Muslim rival, Khwaja Nazimuddin, imposed a ban on his entry into East Pakistan as injurious to public peace, arrested him and ousted him from Dhaka. Nazimuddin also accused Suhrawardy of attempting to unite the two Bengals post-Partition. All of Nazimuddin’s tactics were to prevent a formidable rival in Bengal from challenging him in newly created Pakistan.

In response to these allegations, Suhrawardy held a press conference on June 3, 1948, denying all of Nazimuddin’s charges as baseless and declaring his intention to further the peace mission in East Bengal. Knowing the decades of communal violence which could not devolve any longer, Suhrawardy made his peace missions a priority, regardless of how unpopular it made him in front of his future Pakistani colleagues. Unfortunately, for Suhrawardy, this was exactly what happened as Suhrawardy’s newfound enemies would exploit his advocacy for the Hindus of Pakistan.

During his first speech before the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, on March 6, 1948, Suhrawardy made his debut into Pakistani politics. In his speech, he emphasized the rights of minorities within Pakistan and explained how there was no anomaly in speaking at the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan as an Indian citizen. 

The impressionable and most unforgettable part of Suhrawardy’s speech was his plea of, “open your heart and mind and take within your fold the non-Muslim minority.” Suhrawardy made an insightful statement, warning the Pakistani government of their communal attitude which urged Hindus to migrate because they no longer felt safe; which also applied to the Muslims of India.

Suhrawardy’s adversaries and the overwhelming core of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly saw this speech as the last straw and considering the successful establishment of Pakistan, considered Suhrawardy’s usefulness to the country to be over then and there.

Within days of his speech, members of the Constituent Assembly considered Suhrawardy to be barred from the Assembly and his seat vacated. While some members objected the move as not just wrong, but illegal considering there were numerous individuals with Indian citizenship serving high government posts in Pakistan such as Mr. Ismail, the High Commissioner of India for Pakistan, and Babu Kumar Chakravarty, a Hindu Member of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly from Calcutta. In fact, only Suhrawardy was subject to such scrutiny over his Indian citizenship, which saddened him a great deal. After much debate within the Assembly, a resolution was passed declaring that anyone who hasn’t taken residence in Pakistan within the last six months, cannot be eligible for a seat on the Constituent Assembly. 

Following the resolution, Suhrawardy had decided to move to East Pakistan and use his savings in order to buy a small house in Dhaka. However, when Suhrawardy arrived in Dhaka, East Pakistan in June 1948 by boat in Raniganj, he was served with a notice of extradition within 24 hours, which also prevented his entry for six months. Suhrawardy could not change course and move to West Pakistan, as he didn’t have the funds or any friends in the Western wing to help him settle. Worst of all, Suhrawardy’s father Zahid Suhrawardy, was very sick as he was now 80 years old. As preoccupied with politics as Suhrawardy was, he was deeply loyal to his family and prioritized them before anything else. When Zahid Suhrawardy died in June 1949, the Indian government imposed an exorbitant property tax and later appropriated the 200-year-old Suhrawardy residence on flimsy grounds of non-payment. 

Six months expired and on the occasion of the next Constituent Assembly, Suhrawardy’s seat on the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan was declared vacant. Suhrawardy had no choice but to reside in Lahore during the time of his seat’s vacating. Over a decade ago, Suhrawardy was persuaded by a team of Muslim League leaders under orders of Jinnah. According to the Muslim League on the eve of the 1937 elections, there was clearly and undeniably no future for the Muslim League in not just Bengal, but all throughout the Subcontinent without Suhrawardy. Having served and led the Muslim League in Bengal in forming the first Pre-Partition ministry in India, risking his life and earning him notoriety in India, Suhrawardy was now disposable as his accomplishments had already served their purpose.

Pakistan, once envisioned by Jinnah and Suhrawardy, was now at the hands of greedy, fascist politicians as Jinnah died and Liaquat Ali Khan took control.

However, Suhrawardy was no quitter. Even in the face of hypocritical and selective malice aimed specifically towards him by the newborn Pakistani establishment, Suhrawardy refused to resort to petty, personal attacks and instead, diverted his energy towards emerging victorious once again at the polls through the measure of elections. Democracy was Suhrawardy’s realm and it was a realm that Pakistan supposedly aligned itself with upon its founding. Surely, Suhrawardy felt that reclaiming Pakistan to be the nation that he built through free choice and coalitions, was a necessity for not just his career but for the course of Pakistan’s politics in the future.

Before the story is done, Suhrawardy would recoup his political forces, establish Pakistan’s first successful opposition party and become Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy as Prime Minister of Undivided Bengal relaxing with his dog, a sarail hound, at home.
(Margaret Bourke-White, 1946)

Square One Again: An Exile’s Return to the Country he Founded 

Suhrawardy arrived in Karachi literally in the clothes he stood in, leaving behind his belongings, family heirlooms, priceless carpets, his record collection, 1947 Buick and the house he grew up in. Undeniably, Suhrawardy was a very privileged and ritzy young man who enjoyed the good things in life—whether they be good cars, good food or good clothes—but ultimately, he was unattached to his material possessions. 

After devoting 26 years of his life to defending the interests of Bengal and literally securing the independence of Pakistan, he was not ready to back down before the new Pakistani bureaucratic-military elite.

How exactly Suhrawardy went from the Muslim League politician that saved Pakistan to a targeted political exile, stems from the unchecked political decisions of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was now known as “Quaid-e-Azam” for his role as the Founding Father of Pakistan and first Prime Minister. 

Jinnah had set Pakistan on a course for military dictatorship and fascism at the hands of the West Pakistan Central Government with the first mistake of appointing his loyal lieutenants as bureaucrats for administration of the new nation. The growth of Pakistan’s bureaucracy seized upon the absence of a powerful political party, as Jinnah’s inexperienced, British-trained bureaucrats assumed total control over Pakistan. Commanding total control of the central government machinery, the bureaucracy not only formulated state policy, but executed it.

More importantly, not a single one of the hundred new Pakistani bureaucrats were Bengali and Jinnah personally avoided appointing a single bureaucrat-turned politicians to a cabinet post from East Bengal. Even though Karachi was the capital of the new nation, Punjabis entitled themselves to the two sources of power in determining the fate of Pakistan—the army and the bureaucracy. Not only had Jinnah forgotten to secure a position for his Muslim League colleague, whom he owed the creation of Pakistan to, but Jinnah also intentionally installed his West Pakistani bureaucracy to be in full control of East Pakistan—-a province which they owed their nation’s founding to, but would prove to have no humanitarian regard for.

The groundwork for the economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement and internal colonization of East Pakistan began with the two years where Suhrawardy was banned from Pakistani politics. 

After being unseated from Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, he lived with his elder brother, Shahid Suhrawardy. Suhrawardy had publicly declared his plan to settle permanently in West Pakistan and on March 5, 1949 after Liaquat Ali Khan terminated Suhrawardy’s membership on February 26, 1949.

When asked what his brother was up to, Shahid would playful remark, “He is flitting like a fat turtle dove of peace between India and Pakistan.”

Indeed, Suhrawardy was restless in his endeavors, immediately wishing to continue his legal profession away from the halls of the Calcutta High Court, where his father served as a judge and he had been a trailblazer attorney. Unfortunately, the Courts of Karachi and Lahore were directed not to register him at the request of the Central government. Finally, a court in the small town of Montgomery enrolled Suhrawardy as a lawyer and he moved to Lahore, taking up residence in the house of Nawab Iftikhar Hussain of Mamdot.

Nawab Mamdot was an early advocate of the Muslim League as the only landowning family in Punjab that had pledged support for Jinnah from the start, while other Punjabi landowners opted for the Indian National Congress. Before Partition, Nawab Mamdot was President of the Muslim League in Pujab and when Pakistan was established, Nawab Mamdot was appointed the Chief Minister of Punjab. Shortly after appointment, he was removed from office and accused of misuse of power under the Public and Representative Offices Disqualification Act of 1949 (PARODA) ordinance. 

Defending Nawab Mamdot was Suhrawardy’s first landmark legal case in Pakistan. While the defense proved to be oratorically and legally brilliant, Suhrawardy was not able to exonerate Mamdot completely. However, Suhrawardy removed the stigma that Mamdot had taken unwanted compensation, which was his first step towards building his name and reputation in a country he helped create. Suhrawardy’s most notable legal case would prove to be the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Trial, where the top generals of Pakistan were involved. 

Pakistan’s First Opposition Party: The Awami League is Born

In the realm of politics and the restless pursuit for democracy, Suhrawardy issued the biggest favor for Pakistan through creating its first successful opposition party. As Suhrawardy recalls in his Memoirs, “After coming to West Pakistan, I decided to organize a political party to be called the Awami Muslim League, a suggestion I had already made to several of my friends.” 

“After coming to West Pakistan, I decided to organize a political party to be called the Awami Muslim League, a suggestion I had already made to several of my friends.”

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in his Memoirs (1963) recollecting how he started the first successful opposition party in Pakistan.

Suhrawardy admits in his memoir that he “had been instrumental in creating and organizing the whole of Bengal and was known to the people as the architect of the Muslim League, but owing to differences in political outlook, I found myself in opposition to the Pakistani Muslim League (PML). The party that had united the Muslims in India to demand the creation of Pakistan, now developed into a closed corporation with blind support of the Central government with a fascist mentality.” 

Liaquat Ali Khan (left) served as First Prime Minister after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (right) who served as Pakistan’s first Governor General. While Jinnah would create the first assault on Pakistan’s fledgling democracy by installing his loyal bureaucrats, Liaquat would exacerbate the country’s hopes of democracy by turning Pakistan into a one-party state where only the Muslim League leaders of the Western wing had access to political office.

While Jinnah made the first mistake of installing inexperienced bureaucrats, his predecessor, Liaquat Ali Khan, put the nail in the coffin for Pakistan’s democracy through turning Pakistan into a one-party state. 

Despite one of Jinnah’s very first speeches declaring that the Muslim League would be one of several political parties in Pakistan, Liaquat wished to preserve the PML as the only Muslim party. Liaquat, out of his own political vulnerability and greed, feared the prospect of a new constitution and a fresh general election which would bring into existence other Muslim political parties. 

According to Suhrawardy, “In his [Liaquat Ali Khan’s] zeal for the Muslim League, he identified the party with the state and with the government, which was a Muslim League government, and maintained that anyone who opposed the Muslim League political party, and thus directly or indirectly his government, was a traitor to the state. This laid him [Liaquat] open to the charge of fascism.”

Fulfilling this daunting task of steering the first opposition party in a then-one-party state as a targeted politician, was generally more difficult in West Pakistan rather than East Pakistan. According to Suhrawardy, “In West Pakistan, the work was no doubt uphill, but it …had excluded a number of important and influential people from its membership, even detaining them without trial under the Public Safety Laws for daring to challenge the policies of the government. In East Pakistan, the Awami Muslim League found ready acceptance, for, after all, the Muslims of East Pakistan knew me very well; I had worked in Bengal for more than a generation and had spent twelve agonizing years among them in organizing the Muslim League.”

Clearly, Suhrawardy’s work was cut out for him in the Western wing, while the Eastern wing proved to be his base. Exercising the right to engage in free and fair elections was the only avenue for Suhrawardy and he undertook this endeavor within the new country he helped create headfirst.

The situation for Bengalis in Pakistan was one of self-sacrifice. Bengali was the majority language of Pakistan, while the language imposed by the bureaucrats—Urdu—was only spoken by 6% of the total population of Pakistan. Geographically, East Pakistan was separated from West Pakistan by 1,500 miles of Indian territory. East Bengal’s population was also larger than that of West Pakistan (56% to 44%). However, to describe how exactly Bengalis were numerically superior, but politically subservient, Suhrawardy provides a proper explanation in his Memoirs: 

“East Bengal representatives were thus in majority in the Constituent Assembly, but the Muslim members of the East Bengal Legislature, with matchless generosity and self-sacrifice, in the interest of Pakistan as a nation and Muslim politics as a whole and unmindful of their provincial and parochial interests, who had no chance of being elected by the legislatures of their own provinces, and whom the legislatures of the Muslim majority provinces of the NWFP, Punjab and Sindh refused to elect, in preference of their own nationals.” 

The social and political result of a demographic makeup where Bengalis were a clear majority and more politically mature than their Western counterparts, led to the West Pakistanis, mainly Punjabis, to culturally look down on Bengalis and view them with suspicion. This, of course, was out of fear of domination from the Bengalis, whose leaders proved exponentially more competent in the measure of free and fair elections—-as demonstrated in the 1946 General Elections, 1954 Jukto Front Victory and of course, Mujib’s 1970 Awami League Pakistan General Elections victory 

The situation for Bengalis in Pakistan was one of self-sacrifice. Bengali was the majority language of Pakistan, while the language imposed by the bureaucrats—Urdu—was only spoken by 6% of the total population of Pakistan. Geographically, East Pakistan was separated from West Pakistan by 1,500 miles of Indian territory. East Bengal’s population was also larger than that of West Pakistan (56% to 44%).

In the Pakistan National Assembly in February 1948, Dhirendranath Datta proposed that Bengali should be one of the official languages of Pakistan. Shortly afterwards, another Assemblymember from East Bengal, Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabish, spoke in Bangla during the assembly in direct defiance of Assembly rule. In state opposition to the push for Bangla recognition, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan refused to hold Bangla to an equal status as Urdu, framing the language issue as a motivation to divide the people of Pakistan. 

On March 2, 1948, the demand to include Bangla as an official state language was voiced and when confronted by Dhaka University students, Khwaja Nazimuddin signed into their demands in a rush of panic. Before Jinnah’s death in February 1948, he gave a speech at Dhaka University rejecting Bangla as a state language and declared “Urdu and only Urdu” to be the language of Pakistan. Jinnah was booed and escorted off stage in reaction to the enraged crowd. Never in Jinnah’s life had he experienced negativity and rejection from his fellow Muslims as he did following his “Urdu only” speech in Dhaka, marking a turning point in Pakistan’s history and demonstrating the divisiveness of the language movement.

Jinnah died on September 11, 1948. Jinnah’s Pakistan, its language dispute, its bureaucracy and its new fascist leaders would all survive him and chart a course for the downfall of democracy and the loss of East Pakistan. Liaquat Ali Khan became the first Prime Minister and Khwaja Nazimuddin became the Governor General. However, Liaquat aggressively wrested power into his own hands by reducing the Governor General post, a post originally held by Jinnah, to that of a show boy and maintaining the Pakistan Constituent Assembly as a collection of eighty people, who appointed ministers, governor generals and ambassadors among themselves.

Liaquat’s moves were considered desperate tactics of self-preservation as he hailed from the United Province in India and thus had no political base in Pakistan. Fearing the inevitable loss of his grip on power, Liaquat turned to tyrannical dismissals of his political opponents in order to maintain power. Liaquat subjected opponents such as the Punjab Mamdot ministry, Ayub Khuhro ministry and Hamidul Haq Choudhury with the Public and Representative Offices Disqualification Act of 1949 (PARODA). His paranoia knew no bounds as on one occasion during the third anniversary of Pakistan, Liaquat called Suhrawardy “the dog let loose by India,” dubbing him an Indian agent, while arresting Maulana Abdul Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Liaquat even had his appointee as President of the Pakistan Muslim League, Chowdhury Khaliquzzaman’s, house stoned when differences began to arise between them. 

Liaquat was the first coup instigator in Pakistan, when he dismissed Khwaja Nazimuddin and prevented him from reaching the Queen of England by phone in order to dismiss Liaquat. 

Now, the situation in Pakistan demanded an opposition party to create a constitutional movement in order to challenge the prevailing tilt towards fascism. Suhrawardy himself was a lifelong liberal democrat who decided to fight the menace of fascism by organizing political opposition. The Muslim League that Jinnah persuaded him to resurrect from near extinction was now a fascist outfit with strings being pulled by short-lived politicians and corrupt bureaucrats who only sought for their self-interests. These self-interests systemically barred Bengalis from government posts, even in their own motherland while threatening a second class status to both their mother language and ethnic group. 

The reason was simple: Bengalis were a demographic majority with decades of successful elections under Suhrawardy and Fazlul Haq—one which Pakistan owed its establishment to—who would find themselves at odds with the greedy policies of West Pakistan’s corrupt and self-serving bureaucratic and later military elite. Suppressing the Bengali participation in democracy was thus of primary concern.

Realizing the need to initially establish a democratic system within Pakistan is Suhrawardy’s cardinal contribution to Pakistan, second to his role in securing its establishment. Suhrawardy was aware of the one-party state he was living in that suppressed all opposition with an iron fist and clearly did not lend itself to the freedom of thought. However, Suhrawardy was even more abundantly aware of the political maturity of the people of East Bengal, treasuring their close association and involvement in state affairs.

The muddy and dusty roads of East Bengal were familiar to Suhrawardy, as they were to his ancestors centuries before. He was no stranger to East Bengal and demonstrated it a decade later by touring every nook and cranny of Bengal in order to rally support for the Awami League. Accompanied by his lieutenants, Suhrawardy made the Awami League the most popular and uncontested party in the province. In only a matter of four years, Awami League went from one exiled politician’s dreams for comeback to a party built to last for decades.

The need for a strong opposition was not just felt in East Bengal as Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Mamdot and Manoki Sharif were building an opposition against Liaquat’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League party in the western wing. While Suhrawardy initially considered joining them, he instead gathered his old Muslim League workers in East Bengal for a meeting on June 23-24, 1949 in Dhaka in order to form the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League with Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani as its President. 

In 1950, Suhrawardy founded the Pakistan Awami Muslim League with himself as President and M.H. Usmani as General Secretary. The party’s doors were initially open to all Pakistanis in contrast to the ruling PML’s fascist bar for entry. 

In a council meeting on January 1953, the world “Muslim” was dropped from the party name as Suhrawardy considered how the people of Pakistan were getting accustomed to common citizenship with other religious factions to achieve the strength and development of Pakistan.

While campaigning with his brand new Awami League party, Suhrawardy questioned and rejected the claim that the Pakistan Muslim League were the true creators of Pakistan. He asked “how was it possible for a son to be born before his father?”

The muddy and dusty roads of East Bengal were familiar to Suhrawardy, as they were to his ancestors centuries before. He was no stranger to East Bengal and demonstrated it a decade later by touring every nook and cranny of Bengal in order to rally support for the Awami League. Accompanied by his lieutenants, Suhrawardy made the Awami League the most popular and uncontested party in the province. In only a matter of four years, Awami League went from one exiled politician’s dreams for comeback to a party built to last for decades.

The impending 1954 general elections was around the corner and Suhrawardy was fully geared and prepared to contest the ruling Pakistan Muslim League. Thus, the power struggle between the Pakistan Muslim League and the Awami League was a battle between the two wings of Pakistan for the fate of the country and survival of their democracy.

Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani
Khwaja Nazimuddin
Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

Leading the Bloodless Revolution: Jukto Front Victory in 1954

The battle plan for the 1954 elections involved three Bengali leaders uniting and coming to the forefront representing a vast coalition of opposition parties. A.K. Fazlul Haq, Maulana Abdul Bhashani and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy challenged the Pakistan Muslim League by forming the Jukto Front.

The Jukto Front was created when in September 1952, the Democratic Youth League and the East Pakistan Communist Party proposed the formation of a United Front to fight the East Pakistan Provincial Muslim League in the provincial elections. Afterwards, on May 1953, the Awami League Council meeting resolved to form a “Jukto” (United) Front against the ruling East Pakistan Muslim League through forming coalitions with other likeminded, anti-Muslim League groups. Suhrawardy was key in leading the charge towards reclaiming East Bengal by advancing their true representatives in Pakistan’s political arena and contesting the downward spiral towards fascism. 

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman escorting Maulana Abdul Bhashani during a Jukto Front election.

On November 13, 1953, the Jukto Front was formally established during a public meeting held in Dhaka. With the election scheduled to be held in March 1954, the Jukto Front commemorated the occasion of Ekushey February, February 21, 1954, by declaring their 21-point program as the party’s platform for the elections. The 21-point program stipulated to adopt Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan, promised autonomy for East Pakistan, nationalization of jute trade, introduction of free primary education, abolition of all rent-receiving interests in land and distribution of surplus lands among landless farmers. 

The Jukto Front’s popularity in both policy platform and leadership personalities received unprecedented election hysteria and universal support across East Bengal. The three political giants of Bengal were indeed united. Ultimately, the organizing genius of Suhrawardy that achieved the Jukto Front’s landslide victory, capturing 215 of the 237 Muslim seats, conceding only 9 seats to the incumbent EPML while the rest went to independents. This was exactly as Suhrawardy predicted. The Awami League won all 140 Muslim seats it had contested for and later eight independents opted for joining the Muslim League, bringing the total number of seats to 223 for the Front. 

The resounding victory achieved by the Jukto Front was considered a “bloodless revolution.” East Pakistan Muslim League Chief Minister, Nurul Amin, and four of his cabinet colleagues met crushing defeats in their constituencies in addition to more than fifty other Muslim Leaguers.

The emergence of a non-Muslim League power elite in East Bengal naturally scared the Central government, which provoked the PML ministry to adopt a campaign of scandalous and clandestine acts aimed at nullifying the Jukto Front’s 1954 election victory. Immediately after the election results, the Central government instigated the Bengali-Bihari riots at the U.S.-funded Chandroghona Paper Mills in Chittagong.

While the post-election obstructions unfolded in East Bengal, Suhrawardy was abroad in Zurich, Switzerland, undergoing medical treatment. From his hospital bed, the once-again victorious Bengali leader urged the people of East Bengal to remain united. 

Following the Constitutional crisis, Ghulam Mohammed sent an emissary to Suhrawardy’s hospital, requesting him to return to Pakistan in order to eliminate the constitutional impasse. When the emissary was addressing Suhrawardy, they communicated Ghulam Mohammed’s intention to commission him as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. 

Ghulam Mohammed made specific his interest to entrust Suhrawardy to “wash the dirty linen of the regime.” However, Suhrawardy was not fully sold when he saw the inclusion of Ayub Khan in his cabinet and replied that he would decide on his way back to Pakistan. 

Back in Pakistan, a dangerous duo of the top brass of Pakistani’s military establishment, General Ayub Khan and Major General Iskander Ali, voiced their dislike of Suhrawardy. Both generals feared the release of army generals who were convicted for their attempted coup against Liaquat Ali Khan and who were brilliantly defended by Suhrawardy in order to escape with their lives in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Trials. The tension led Ghulam Mohammed to resort to including Mohammed Ali Bogra into the cabinet, who worked before in Suhrawardy’s cabinet and also shared a fear of his inclusion. 

Ayub and Mirza are colossal figures in the course of Pakistani politics in their own right.

The Battle of Plassey (1757) where Mir Jafar to the right in green conspired with Robert Clive of the East India Company to the left under the planted flag.
Nearly two centuries after his ancestor’s betrayal, Iskander Ali Mirza rises to the post of Pakistan’s first President following a three-decade career in the British Indian army.

Iskander Ali Mirza is the direct descendant of the infamous Traitor of Bengal, Mir Jafar, who conspired with the British East India Company in order to unseat the last independent ruler of Bengal, Siraj-Ud-Daulah. However, Mirza never grew up in Kolkata or the seat of his family’s rule over Mughal and later Company Bengal in Murshidabad, West Bengal. Mirza, too, was born into an ashraf Bengali Muslim family who grew up in Bombay and was the first Indian graduate from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Mirza’s military career began as an Indian Army on July 16, 1920. Mirza later joined the British Indian Political Service as an agent pitting Pathan tribes against each other, once getting injured in combat. Mirza spent so much time among the Pathans in the North West Frontier Province that he was fluent in Pashto. 

Major General Iskander Ali Mirza, the highest ranking Bengali in Pakistani military history, who served as Governor General and first President of Pakistan.
Prime Minister Suhrawardy dressed in a white suit in the front right seat with President Ali Mirza seated to the left wearing a gray suit, seeming to lecture Suhrawardy while Suhrawardy casually spectates the cricket game. (Karachi, 1957)

Mirza was the highest-ranking Bengali in Pakistan’s military history, being the only Bengali to hold the second highest rank of Major General within the army, Governor General of Pakistan and later President, where he held Suhrawardy’s Prime Ministership under his thumb and was initially opposed to Suhrawardy’s tenure in office. However, Mirza only claimed his Bengali roots when politically expedient, like when Suhrawardy was under consideration for Prime Minister. Initially, Mirza said Suhrawardy would be Prime Minister “over his dead body” and objected to it on the basis that both the President and the Prime Minister of Pakistan could not both be Bengalis from East Pakistan. However, Mirza has never made any attempt over the course of his decorated military career to address the extreme disparity of Bengali enlistment into the Pakistani army, despite his top position within the Pakistani Army. Of the 2,213 army officers enlisted in the Pakistani military establishment, only 81 were Bengali as of 1963 and Mirza himself was the top official before ascendancy to office of Governor General and later, President of Pakistan.

The state of Pakistani officer enlistment from both wings of Pakistan in 1963, showing a clear and evident disparity explicitly barring and preventing Bengali enlistment into the Pakistan army. (Memoirs of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Pg. 163)

After Suhrawardy’s Jukto Front victory in the free and fair elections of 1954, Mirza spoke openly of “controlled democracy.” 

Mirza’s presidency saw four Prime Ministers come and go at his discretion, the shortest tenure belonging to Ismail Ibrahim Chundrigar who succeeded Suhrawardy for two months only. The broad consensus among Pakistani historians is that Mirza manipulated the course of Pakistani politics through excessive interference in civilian government. Whether it be Mirza’s training or background, Mirza ultimately believed that the people of Pakistan were not ready for democracy. Mirza himself states how Pakistan “lacked the parliamentary spirit and because of the lack of training in the field of democracy and the low literacy rate among the masses, democratic institutions cannot flourish in Pakistan.”

Mirza was ultimately dismissed by General Ayub Khan, who was himself appointed by Mirza and would go on to set the stage for the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War with his openly racist outlook towards Bengalis who both populated the majority of the country and stood as obstacles to all-out military and economic domination of East Pakistan.

 The compromise in elevating Suhrawardy to Prime Minister was thus to promise that A.K. Fazlul Haq and his Krishak Sramik Party gained power in East Bengal in exchange for Haq’s promise to challenge Suhrawardy’s credentials to claim leadership over the people of East Bengal. While Suhrawardy’s nobility among Bengalis as an upper-caste, ashraf Muslim never made him less accessible to the Bengali Muslims at large, especially considering his own will and decision to learn Bangla in order to better connect with the people, it was a point of difference as was his origins in West Bengal. Haq was manipulated into leveraging this against Suhrawardy in order to contest a mutual adversary of the ruling clique.  

According to Ahmadi, the two great leaders of Bengal were “kept apart to serve the ambitions of the ruling coterie.” Suhrawardy had no knowledge of the conspiracy set up against him and was in tears when he heard Ghulam Mohammed’s promises in person upon returning to Karachi on December 5, 1954. Suhrawardy was convinced that by joining the Bogra ministry on December 21, 1954, they could try and restore parliamentary government and even more urgently to prevent the looming threat of military dictatorship in Pakistan.

However, before conceding Prime Ministership to Suhrwardy, the incumbent Pakistan Prime Minister, Muhammad Ali Bogra, imposed a geopolitical program on November 22, 1954, called the One Unit scheme which called for addressing the unequal policies between the two wings of Pakistan. The One Unit program was implemented on October 14, 1955, after which the four Western provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province were merged into West Pakistan, while East Bengal was renamed East Pakistan. In the first official state announcement on the One Unit scheme, Bogra highlighted that “there will be no Bengalis, no Punjabis, no Sindhis, no Pathans, no Balochis, no Bahawalpuris, nor Khairpuris. The disappearance of these groups will strengthen the integrity of Pakistan.” 

Suhrawardy, himself, was an advocate of parity and earlier on July 7, 1955, he signed the Murree Pact which negotiated five points that were holding up the framing of Pakistan’s constitution. The points were:

  1. West Pakistan to be integrated as one unit.
  2. Each wing was granted full regional autonomy
  3. There would be parity between the two wings, not just in representation
  4. Elections would be the medium of the joint electorate
  5. Bengali and Urdu would be the two state languages

While the Murree Pact of 1955 had its benefits in the pursuit of better uniting and administering Pakistan, it forfeited the Bengali advantage of numerical advantage in democratic representation by complying to the principle of parity. Parity was the hardest and ultimately, the most unacceptable compromise, which the people of later Bangladesh would never fully forgive or forget even though Suhrawardy was still supported in his ascent to Prime Ministership in 1956.

Prime Minister of Pakistan: Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

In 1956, Pakistan’s democracy saw its first opposition party take power. Suhrawardy’s Awami League Party and the National Front had done what incumbent Pakistan Muslim League issued draconian measures to prevent. During these 13 months of the Suhrawardy administration, the Bengali people felt relief, law and order was prioritized, foreign policy was established, economic relief was developing and political efficacy as well as integrity in Pakistan was carried out. Little did the people of Pakistan know that this would be the last Bengali Prime Minister of Pakistan to witness a nonviolent transition of government. At the same time, Suhrawardy’s pro-U.S. foreign policy earned him friends and enemies at home, including his own Jukto Front partners, who would leave him alone without the support of public opinion at the end of his short-lived term.

Immediately upon taking oath for office, Suhrawardy made clear his emphasis on three objectives:

  1. A general election in Pakistan
  2. Elevating Pakistan’s prestige in the sphere of international opinion
  3. Equal treatment to neglected regions of Pakistan.

Domestically, Suhrawardy convened parliament within one month of taking office in order to resolve the electorate issue. He would introduce the Joint Electorate Bill in parliament which the House passed.

Law and order went hand-in-hand with democracy. Free and fair elections were only as good as the society whose courts were equally receptive to the people within the state. In line with his beliefs and own experience as a public official, Suhrawardy guaranteed equal citizenship to all, irrespective of religion, race, creed and culture. Democracy existed in Pakistan only as long as fair trial was given. This move won the respect of political prisoners as did the later abolishment of the Public Safety Act, which was frequently used by prior governments in order to intimidate opposition political leaders.

Economically, Suhrawardy took steps to assure all foreign exchange earnings were equally divided between East and West Pakistan as well as the federal zone. Additionally, the Suhrawardy administration introduced a new financial year beginning in July each year in an effort to give East Pakistan’s executives enough time to complete construction and building works before the monsoon season. This greatly improved East Pakistan’s agricultural sector, which was not imaginable when earlier bureaucrats, who were unknowledgeable of Bengal’s agricultural industry, failed to address the agricultural sector at all. 

According to Suhrawardy and Ittefaq Editor Tofazzul Islam aka Manik Mia, the press within East Pakistan was strangulated. Manik Mia had been long demanding that press of East and West Pakistan be treated the same with regards to featured government advertisements. Even more pressing, the rates given to the East Pakistan press were exponentially lower than the rates given to the West Pakistan press. For example, Suhrawardy recounts how “Rs. 23 per inch were given to the West Pakistani English daily Dawn and Rs. 16 per inch given to Urdu daily Jung, while only Rs. 4.50 per inch were given to East Pakistan’s Ittefaq. With much effort Suhrawardy was able to get the rates for East Pakistan to increase to Rs. 6 per inch.

The Awami League government also opened many federal programs through government spending in order to develop the long-neglected Eastern wing of Pakistan. The Films Development Corporation was established in order to assist the private sector to improve the film industry. The Jute Marketing Corporation was established in order to boost the jute trade which comprised 70% of Pakistan’s foreign exchange. The Dhaka Improvement Trust and the Chittagong Development Authority were established in order to facilitate the urbanization of these two fast-growing cities in East Bengal. The Inland Water Transport Authority was established for the purpose of developing waterways in the riverine province. 

These economic policies have long standing significance considering some of these Suhrawardy administration-era federal agencies still exist and operate in Bangladesh to this day. The economic and social development was perceived as natural and long-awaited in East Bengal, who were proven right to see East Bengal thrive under Bengali leaders accountable to the Bengali masses.

Perhaps the most impressive of all Suhrawardy’s accomplishments during his tenure as Prime Minister, was his spirited foreign policy. Within just thirteen months, he fulfilled his promise of raising the status of Pakistan in the zone of international opinion. 

Three factors most importantly influenced his pursuit of an independent foreign policy:

  1. Pakistan needed to develop and strengthen its military capacity, acquiring ammunition and military equipment as well as stockpiling its industrial sufficiency.
  2. The Communist powers were hostile to Pakistan as a result of both Pakistan’s subservient acceptance of American aid and India’s flirtations with China and Russia.
  3. Pakistan’s foreign policy was undeniably weak and Pakistan admittedly “had no friends in Asia except Iraq, Turkey, Thailand and the Philippine. All neighbors—India, the Soviet Union, China and Afghanistan—were hostile. Burma was unfriendly and Sri Lanka was indifferent to Pakistan.
  4. The Kashmir issue remained unsolved.

Defense and foreign policy were of primary concern for Suhrawardy as the Cold War era forced Pakistan into choosing a bloc between the Soviet and U.S. blocs in addition to the decision to seek nuclear weapons. In the United States, the Manhattan Project had just prevailed in World War II, but a more pressing nuclear weapons and space race with the Soviet Union was on the horizon. Knowledge and capacity for the sake of deterrence, and not overwhelming military display, would shape modern warfare in the next century and Suhrawardy led Pakistan into this post-World War II nuclear age. 

Official logo of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) established by Prime Minister Suhrawardy in March 1956.
Salimuzzaman Siddiqui(third from left) and Raziuddin Siddiqui (third from right)

Assembling a society of scientists to bring Pakistan into this race for knowledge and nuclear deterrence capacity, Suhrawardy founded Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) in March 1956. The PAEC was headed by Salimuzzaman Siddiqui as Suhrawardy’s Science Advisor and Raziuddin Siddiqui as Head of Nuclear Research. Suhrawardy initially intended to harness nuclear power to generate energy, commissioning the creation of the KANUPP-1 nuclear energy plant in Karachi in 1954 (later completed in 1974 under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), and would later decide to consider the manufacturing of nuclear bombs. To this day, PAEC has proved instrumental in Pakistan’s defense.

Suhrawardy’s foreign policy strategy was to extend friendship towards all in an attempt to counteract India’s foreign policy abroad. Suhrawardy himself summarized his foreign policy as “goodwill towards all and malice towards none.”

Hoping to win friends in order to find a solution to the Kashmir problem, Suhrawardy aimed at attaining regional support from China and Russia.

Prior to Suhrawardy, no Pakistani leader had dared to open dialogue with China out of fear of adverse public relations. While addressing a public meeting at the historic Paltan Maidan, Suhrawardy declared “I was the first to start this thing [Sino-Pakistan friendship]. Until then no one had dared to do it. My predecessors would say: ‘Gentlemen, we’re afraid of doing this.’ What is there to fear? If my mind is clear, if I have love in my heart, if I’m not jealous, what should I be afraid of? I fear none but Allah alone.”

First, Suhrawardy accepted an invitation from the Chinese government to visit China in October 1956. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai made a historic return visit to Pakistan. Zhou Enlai’s historic reception in Dhaka was a memorable milestone in Sino-Pakistan relations, during which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave a speech. Suhrawardy successfully convinced China’s leaders that they could coexist and establish cultural and bilateral relations, despite their differences in political systems. Pakistan’s position in pro-U.S. military Cold War pacts, specifically the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) with Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and the U.S., gave reason to doubt a relationship between Pakistan and China as a conflict of interest.

However, during Premier Zhou En Lai’s speech on his return visit to East Pakistan, he mentioned that the “two countries had no conflict of interests.” Suhrawardy himself predicted early in 1957 following his groundbreaking diplomatic overtures to China, “I feel perfectly certain that when the crucial time comes, China will come to our assistance.” This prediction has been proven right to this day.

Suhrawardy with Mao Zedong during his visit to China on October 1956.
During their state visit to China, Suhrawardy is in a bow tie to the right, his daughter Begum Akhtar Suleiman to the left of him and Mao Zedong in the middle.

Prime Minister Suhrawardy also established contact with neighboring Burmese leaders when he visited Burma on his way to and from China. A later high-level delegation visited Burma in order to negotiate and sign an agreement, underlining their mutual interests. A trade delegation followed, sent by the Friends of Burma Society in Karachi. 

TOKYO, JAPAN – APRIL 23: Pakistani Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy addresses on arrival at Haneda Airport on April 23, 1957 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

In April 1957, Prime Minister Suhrawardy visited Japan. A trade pact was later negotiated and signed with Russia. 

Suhrawardy on the World Stage: Shaping Pakistan’s Foreign Policy

Stacking accolades and earning allies in East and Central Asia, Suhrawardy also made clear his intention to bring all emerging Muslim countrues to a common platform. While addressing a group of Dhaka University students in May 1957, Suhrawardy was asked what were his thoughts on a united Muslim bloc. To this, Suhrawardy replied “however many zeros we may add to each other, the answer will still be zero.”

Of course, when Suhrawardy was referring to the many and newly independent Muslim countries as zeroes, he was referring to their military strength and not their international reputations. This assessment was not false. The U.S., Russia and the United Kingdom possessed modern military capabilities which no Muslim nation at the time was on par with. Pakistan was undoubtedly a zero as well. Unfortunately for Suhrwardy, the public across the Arab World were angered by this statement, particularly Egypt, which was headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser at the time.

However, Suhrawardy was still ultimately successful in gaining the support of Arab states by joining the Baghdad Pact. The Baghdad pact was an early Cold War alliance formed in 1955 between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The pact was seen as a brilliant and well-received move by Western nations, who lauded this effort to counter encroaching Soviet influence. The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan wrote from Karachi on December 27, 1957, leaving the following remarks about Pakistan’s role: “I was told that Pakistan constitutes a cornerstone of U.S. policy in this part of the world, that Pakistan is the anchor of the Baghdad Pact, and of SEATO, that the Paks are strong, direct, friendly and virile, and that Pakistan constitutes bulwark of strength in the area.” 

Following Suhrawardy’s zero assessment, Egypt communicated their disappointment with Pakistan through diplomatic overtures. First, Egypt rejected Pakistan’s offer during the Suez Crisis to offer an army contingent as a contribution to the United Nation as a peacekeeping force. Prime Minister Suhrawardy even warned the British that Pakistan would withdraw from the Commonwealth if British aggression in Egypt were to continue. More surprisingly, Egypt voted against Pakistan when the Kashmir dispute was debated at the United Nations. Meanwhile, India profited off Pakistan’s choppy relationship with the Arab world by appointing Muslim ambassadors to Arab nations while engaging in Anti-Baghdad pact propaganda, which curried favor with the Arabs. Even though India recognized and kept trade links with Israel, India succeeded in creating reluctance between Arab nations and Pakistan for highlighting Pakistan’s pro-Western inclinations. 

Nuri Saied as Prime Minister of Iraq, Suhrawardy Adnan Menderes as Prime Minister of Turkey and Prince Abdullahi (1958). All three leaders, other than Suhrawardy, were executed while Suhrawardy is believed to be assassinated in a Beirut hotel under the orders of Ayub Khan.

Suhrawardy visited Iran, Lebanon and Turkey in January 1958, while General Iskander Ali Mirza visited Saudi Arabia in order to negotiate and sign a trade pact.

Afghanistan provided Pakistan a constant source of tension as the only country to reject its entry into the United Nations. Afghan-Pakistan relations reached a low point when in 1955, the Pakistan embassy in Kabul was ransacked and the national flag was pulled down and desecrated. The conflict between these two countries stems from the British Indian border with Afghanistan, which Pakistan adopted called the Durand Line, which Afghanistan to this day has not fully recognized. Suhrawardy’s administration showed some relief between the two countries as Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah invited General Iskander Ali Mirza and Sardar Daudis paid a subsequent return visit to Pakistan, showing a period of improved relations between the two countries. 

Pakistan’s security was of tantamount concern and required immediate attention. Nearly 85% of Pakistan’s budget was directed towards defense, even though there was no feeling of security against possible foreign aggression. In addition to the Baghdad Pact, Pakistan under Suhrawardy also entered the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) with Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and the United States as well as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) to enhance their position vis-a-vis India. SEATO and CENTO were actually works in the making from earlier and often clandestine negotiations between earlier Prime Ministers and of course, General Ayub Khan whose May 1953 visit secured money and weaponry from Eisenhower in exchange for permission to collect intelligence on Soviet and Chinese interests neighboring Pakistan including a decade-long lease of the village in Peshawar known as Badaber or Peshawar Air Station (PAF Badaber).

During Suhrawardy’s state visit to the United States in July 1957, Suhrawardy complied with Eisenhower’s request that Pakistan allow the United States to increase collection operations near the Pakistani border including U-2 spy plane operations and taking charge of Badaber. The following August of 1957, the CIA launched seven missions over Soviet and Chinese territory. 

Pakistan’s value to the U.S. as a base of operations proved beyond beneficial as three of these missions resulted in the U-2 places successfully pinpointing previously unknown locations of intercontinental ballistic missile test sites and nuclear weapons facilities. Among the facilities identified by this U.S-Pakistan spy operation were the Soviet Tyuratam intercontinental ballistic missile sites, Saryashan anti-ballistic missile sites, the Lop Nur nuclear test base where China conducted a nuclear test with Soviet assistance and photographs of the Semipalatinsk proving grounds for four hours before a half-megaton nuclear device detonated the site. 

A CIA internal report described the results of the seven missions to be a “bonanza of information that kept scores of photo interpreters busy for more than a year.” Diplomatic overtures like Suhrawardy’s televised July 1957 state visit to Washington alongside clandestine negotiations like Ayub’s meetings with U.S. officials prior and during the Eisenhower administration presented the U.S. with valuable intelligence that offered an edge over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Among other things, the information collected by the CIA proved that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s exaggerations of the Soviet-U.S. missile gap and intercontinental ballistic missile capacity to be false.

The U-2 spy plane launched from Peshawar Air Station in Pakistan, but shot down in 1960 by Soviet forces.

To India, these pacts were a topic of serious concern, which Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made very clear. Nehru condemned the CENTO and SEATO pacts, purporting that the military aid received under these two pacts would be leveraged against India and the U.S. would not supervise deployment. India also received U.S. military aid, under the auspices that they only be used by U.S. allies in the event of an attack against their borders. 

Suhrawardy questioned Nehru and pointed out his hypocrisy for attacking Pakistan’s decision to join two defense pacts. Suhrawardy wondered how Nehru could remain silent when Russia invaded Hungary on October 23, 1956, but was so quick to criticize pacts Pakistan had joined for her own self defense. It was abundantly clear that Nehru found it convenient to condemn a small country like Pakistan, given that India was militarily secure enough to stand on her own resources.

Resemblant with his motives for undertaking the Peace Missions with Gandhi, Suhrawardy was always vocally opposed to inciting military confrontation with India. The reasons were simple. India was a vast and wealthy nation with a large Muslim population. At the same time, Suhrawardy aimed for reciprocity with India on a portfolio of issues including the Kashmir dispute, flooding and water flow issues from East Pakistan, the Brahmaputra flooding Assam and a canal water dispute in West Pakistan. Suhrawardy even repeated the offer of a “no-war pact” with India and proposed dismissing the national army once the problem was resolved. 

Suhrawardy issuing a policy announcement regarding the situation in Kashmir (1957).

While these pacts became significant moves by both Pakistan as a state and Suhrawardy as a statesmen, these moves were not beyond criticism. Suhrawardy’s long time ally and the President of the East Pakistan Awami League, Maulana Abdul Bhashani, split the Awami League party over the issue of remaining in these pacts, which were symbols of subservience to the West to many who wished Pakistan to stay neutral. Maulana Abdul Bhashani faithfully split the once-victorious Awami League party out of disapproval of the pacts, forming his own National Awami Party in East Bengal.

The falling out between Bhashani and Suhrawardy also presents a point in history, when Suhrwardy’s popularity in his second political base of East Bengal fell from grace beyond the point of return. Suhrawardy was expected, as a Bengali leader in Pakistan, to fulfill the Jukto Front promises presented in the 21 point program. However, upon Suhrawardy’s ascent to Prime Ministership, there was a resounding feeling of betrayal that these points no longer mattered as it was assumed that Suhrawardy’s mere leadership position itself fulfilled those demands. 

Suhrawardy was left alone after catering to American interests through not just leading Pakistan into the SEATO and CENTO pacts, but authorizing use of Badaber to support U.S. spy operations on the Soviet Union and accepting immense aid from the U.S. Suhrawardy was left alone after Bhashani split from his Awami League, leaving him vulnerable to the will of Ayub Khan and Iskander Ali Mirza. Without the support of public opinion, Suhrawardy was left without strong allies and was considered a traitor in East Pakistan. It can be argued that Pakistan’s client state relationship with the U.S. began with the Suhrawardy administration, although the decision to join the pacts and the brunt of negotiating the use of Badaber as a base of U.S. operations was more so decisions of Ayub Khan and other members of the military establishment as early as 1953.

Suhrawardy(left) enjoying a laugh with General Habibatullah Khattak (middle) and General Ayub Khan (right).

Suhrawardy’s failure to follow through with the demands of the Jukto Front alliance that catapulted him into power, reduced his name from the former glory it knew just a decade earlier when he won in the 1946 elections. In Bangladesh, in particular, Suhrawardy’s legacy became tainted for his Jukto Front shortcomings and was ultimately surpassed in the memory of Bengalis by Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Haq.

Interestingly enough, the final decision to join the pacts were made by three people — Ghulam Mohammad, Zafrullah Khan and General Ayub Khan. Suhrawardy was really only a figurehead, who was tasked to do all the explaining to western media and government officials. This was prescribed as part of Governor General Iskandar Ali Mirza’s idea of controlled democracy.

In January 1957, the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference was held in London where all Prime Ministers from former British colonial territories presented their heads of state in a meeting. Suhrawardy effectively explained Pakistan’s situation in London and afterwards, made his way to the United States to win support from the Eisenhower administration.

Suhrawardy’s state visit to the United States was widely covered and after impressing the American people and Eisenhower administration with the same message, he toured the U.S. Suhrawardy visited the Hoover Dam in Arizona, which he was very fond of considering the need for hydroelectric dams in his own country. Even in Arizona, Suhrawardy was overtaken by the warm welcome given to his entourage by simple American tourists whom he shared a travel bus with. That bus ride apparently included many sing-alongs which Suhrawardy led, including songs he learned from his days at Oxford. Suhrawardy sat at the front of the bus, pointing at people who didn’t partake in the sing-along with, “you aren’t singing!”

Suhrawardy finally received Eisenhower’s telegram. Unfortunately, the U.S. support outlined in the telegram was taken back once Suhrawardy was out of office.

Suhrawardy (left), Eisenhower (middle) and Ayub (right).

In only 13 months of office, Suhrawardy was wildly popular at home and abroad. To Ahmadi, “Suhrawardy was looked upon as one who equalled Nehru in politics and diplomacy. Suhrawardy was certainly a greater parliamentarian and orator than Nehru and had equal experience in organizing politics in the country.” Very quickly, Suhrawardy went from idol to political scapegoat.

Military dictatorship replaced Suhrawardy on October 7, 1958. General Iskander Ali Mirza abrogated his own constitution and assumed total power. Additionally, Mirza had also dismissed the central and provincial governments, while martial law was instituted throughout the country with the appointment of General Ayub Khan as Chief Martial Law Administrator.

Ayub Khan turned his attention towards potential opposition after assuming complete power by banishing all politicians from the political scene through the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO) on August 7, 1959.

From Exile to Assasination: Shaheed’s Final Hours

In Suhrawardy’s memoirs, which he wrote during the last year of his life (1963), he makes clear that West Pakistan was indeed on the warpath after Commander General Iskander Ali Mirza declared Martial Law. 

From jail, Suhrawardy wrote to Ayub: “Let me tell you Mr. President, what you do not know, that Pakistan is my life. I have, I believe, played a great part in bringing it into existence. Bengal was the only province—among the Muslim majority provinces—that gave Muslim League ministry to the Quaid-e-Azam; Bengal was the pawn in his hand due to which Congress accepted the partition of India. And to make Bengal accept the Muslim League, and align itself in the struggle for Pakistan, I had to work day and night , at the cost of my own living, health and safety.”

Francois Jabres “Tell your father to take great care of himself. The word is going around that they are out to get him.” Earlier, a threat was made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Suhrawardy, that he would personally make sure that he never sets foot in Pakistan.

There exists a strong belief among Bengali Muslim masses, as well as eye witness and family accounts, that confirm that Suhrawardy’s death in Beirut was the work of Ayub Khan. Fearing Suhrawardy as the only formidable opponent to his military rule—which would consume Pakistan for the next 50 years—Ayub ordered his killing in anticipation of a second defeat to Suhrawardy in the upcoming presidential elections. 

Suhrawardy told Ayub in his letter from jail that “Pakistan is my life,” and so Ayub took Suhrawardy’s life. The assasination of Suhrawardy is one of the first of many state secrets of Pakistan. How could someone who secured a mandate for the nation later be so persecuted by beneficiaries of his own life’s work?

“Let me tell you Mr. President, what you do not know, that Pakistan is my life. I have, I believe, played a great part in bringing it into existence. Bengal was the only province—among the Muslim majority provinces—that gave Muslim League ministry to the Quaid-e-Azam; Bengal was the pawn in his hand due to which Congress accepted the partition of India. And to make Bengal accept the Muslim League, and align itself in the struggle for Pakistan, I had to work day and night , at the cost of my own living, health and safety.”

Suhrawardy’s Letter to President Ayub Khan from Prison (1961)

While many point to the beginning of all-out separation from Pakistan to occur after the March 26, 1971 speech or the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, others believe that the assasination of Suhrawardy to be the final straw for East Pakistan. 

How someone who clearly secured the founding of Pakistan, was martyred for his ability to participate in free and fair elections successfully, still baffles many to this day. Considering the subsequent Liberation War and eventual breakup of Pakistan, it is evident that jealousy and the threat of dissent also killed Suhrawardy.

How someone who clearly secured the founding of Pakistan, could be martyred for his ability to participate in free and fair elections successfully, still baffles many to this day. Considering the subsequent Liberation War and eventual breakup of Pakistan, it is evident that jealousy and the threat of dissent also killed Suhrawardy. 

When we consider the leaders of West Pakistan, who laid the groundwork for systemic racism and internal colonization of East Bengal, the leaders are all Jinnah-appointed bureaucrats, military personnel and arm-chair politicians. Whether it be Liaquat Ali Khan or Ayub Khan, the abject reality of East Bengal’s more advanced political maturity over the Western wing could only be addressed by fascism and military exploitation. Banning opposition parties, intimidating Bengali leaders and instigating riots were tactics employed by the same Muslim League that Suhrawardy was offered to join in 1936 and won in the 1946 General Elections. Once independent, the military-bureaucratic elite of West Pakistan was at war with secular, democratic politicians who spoke the language of rights and mutual prosperity.

Suhrawardy’s funeral was that of an emperor, with people crowding around their leader’s burial with tears and shrieks of horror at the demise of such an astounding figure. At his funeral, his brother Shahid and his daughter Begum Akhtar, are seen intently looking at Suhrawardy’s grave in pain and disbelief. 

Shahid remarked, “goodbye old friend, some of his greatness rubbed off on us.” Just a decade earlier, the two brothers were living together and Shahid mocked how Suhrawardy was “flitting like a fat turtle dove of peace between India and Pakistan.” 

Alas, the ‘fat turtle dove of peace between India and Pakistan’ was laid to rest after a tireless forty decade career leading the politics of Bengal, India and Pakistan all the same. Anger and sorrow from Suhrawardy’s assassination still live on to this day, but the hope and inspiration of Suhrawardy’s legacy surpass any sense of bitterness.

The Most Controversial Bengali of All Time: Bangladesh & Pakistan’s Founding Father or India’s ‘Butcher of Bengal’

How one person’s political career could chart the course for the end of an era and the political landscape of two of the independent nations that would emerge from it, remains a long and difficult story to tell. 

The story of Suhrawardy is simple. He was born into Sufi family of Arab descent that settled in Bengal. He followed his father’s footsteps into law, but also found himself leading politics on behalf of the Muslims of the subcontinent. Adopting their cause and risking life and limb, his popular forces led invincible in free and fair elections, emerging victorious with his Muslim League party in the 1937 and 1946 general elections. His 1946 general election victory turned Suhrawardy from a union leader and lawyer into the Prime Minister of undivided Bengal, the only Muslim League ministry in pre-Partition India which undeniably established a mandate and secured the founding of Pakistan. Before Partition, Suhrawardy made a concerted attempt to keep Bengal united through his United Bengal Plan in 1947, which was contested by Syama Prasad Mukherjee’s Bengali Hindu Homeland movement in Kolkata, dividing Bengal for good.

Unfortunately, the nation he founded would not receive him with open arms as his seat was vacated from Pakistan’s legislature, the Constituent Assembly, over technicalities with his Indian citizenship but more so his adversaries’ fears of his potential popularity in Pakistan politics. The Muslim League that Suhrawardy built and secured a state for, now isolated him as it turned into a fascist one-party state apparatus run at the pleasure of the inexperienced bureaucracy and army. Suhrawardy never gave up, despite the heightened risk and repeated threats in newborn Pakistan. He gathered his old Muslim League workers from a decade ago and formed the Awami League in 1950 in East Bengal. Joining forces with fellow opposition parties, Suhrawardy joined A.K. Fazlul Haq and Mawlana Abdul Bhashani to triumph over the Muslim League in East Pakistan in 1954. 

Suhrawardy would later become Prime Minister, but before doing so, provided the ammunition for his funeral by signing the Murree pact and failing to fulfill the 21 point program, which his Jukto Front promised the people of East Bengal. While Suhrawardy’s 13 months as Prime Minister would prove foundational in the realm of foreign policy, humanitarian relief, bureaucracy expansion, infrastructure development and political representation, his tenure was always destined to fall short as the military-bureaucratic apparatus that constrained and contained him, would eventually assume power. Suhrawardy then lived the last of his days fighting charges of Ayub Khan—the first military dictator with a proven pathological hatred for Bengalis—before his mysterious death alone in a hospital in Beirut, Lebanon.

How one person’s political career could chart the course for the end of an era and the political landscape of two of the independent nations that would emerge from it, remains a long and difficult story to tell. 

As tragic and monumental as Suhrawardy’s life is, it is just as prone to excessive politicization.

In his birthplace of Midnapore, which is now in West Bengal, India, he is remembered as he is remembered all throughout the rest of India. Suhrawardy is remembered as the “Butcher of Bengal.” A sadistic godfather of sorts who preyed and capitalized on the grievances of the Muslims of Bengal in order to fulfill his own political gain. A recent piece published by Swarajya, recounts how Suhrawardy intentionally orchestrated the riots in Bengal through recruiting Muslim police officers outside of Bengal to police Direct Action Day. Another piece, captioned “It’s a Shame that the Butcher of Bengal gets a Street in Kolkata named after him,” gave a similar message of Suhrawardy’s ‘anti-Indian’ complicitness although the street in question was actually named after his uncle, diplomat and surgeon Hassan Suhrawardy. As a Muslim League leader leading the only Muslim League ministry in Pre-Partition India, he is framed to have attempted to take Bengal, namely Kolkata, through violent force through Jinnah’s Direct Action Day. 

Deborah Baker, writer and wife of Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh, recounts Suhrawardy’s reputation in the mythical world of the Bengali Renaissance in a manner that draw heavy parallels to both right-wing takes on Suhrawardy, early Hindu Mahasabha propaganda and of course the prevailing and subtly Islamophobic recollections that have influenced household attitudes towards Muslims and overall Islamic history in West Bengal. 

Baker describes Suhrawardy as a “beautifully tailored Oxonian,” like his brother Shahid, who both agreed Britain had no business in India. “Shaheed was a rogue and a scoundrel, a ‘natural gangster, ready to dabble in strike politics and to make money and political capital out of the most exciting and disgraceful situations.’ Political intrigue, often involving sexual blackmail, was the air he breathed. He had acquaintances from all walks of life and made good use of them. No sooner had he secured one political post than he schemed to find a better one.” 

Baker’s characterization of Suhrawardy not only comes from a place of vested interests built on decades communal hatred, it strikes parallels with right-wing publications and their take on Suhrawardy in a much larger effort to isolate Muslims from West Bengal. Mentioning that “no sooner had he secured one political post than he schemed to find a better one,” conveys a clear disdain for Suhrawardy’s political ascent. All of Suhrawardy’s peers, whether fellow Bengali Muslim leaders like Fazlul Haq or Hindu communal leaders like Syama Prasad Mukherjee, similarly jumped from post to post with great speed as terms never surpassed more than a few years. However, Suhrawardy’s speed of political ascent and his eventual Muslim League victory, which catapulted him into the position of the last Prime Minister of all of undivided Bengal, is a source of much bitterness from right-wing vested interests and fodder for their psychological campaigns to paint pre-Partition Muslim leaders as intentionally violent and scandalous.

As a western outsider wishing to narrate Bengali history, Baker has chosen to make yet another contribution to a narrative funded by right-wing and western interests, that ultimately taint the image of the Bengali Muslim if not Muslim struggle within the storm of Partition as counterproductive and harmful. This not only adds nothing to the conversation, it simply hopes to discredit by relying on sources who only confirm biases.

Of course, the legacy of Suhrawardy is so treasured that such literary tirades are met with an equal degree of scrutiny and ridicule. In a 2019 article published in Dhaka Tribune by Khademul Islam titled “Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy: A hatchet job,” Islam deconstructs and exposes how Baker makes this pointless and redundant hatchet job on Suhrawardy. Similarly quoting her highly subjective detailing of Suhrawardy as a ‘gangster’, ‘king of the goondas’ and ‘scoundrel’, Islam then quotes how in Baker’s book, she expresses how she is “personally grateful to those who saw my Indian education.” To Islam, Baker’s Indian education is the result of an “impressive list of Mukherjees, Chaudhuris and Ghosh-es” which are a continuance of “bhadrolok historiography” waged by Bengali Brahmin scholars like Jaya Chaterji, author of Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947

Surely, the Bengali Brahmin Bhadralok narrative should never be taken at face value, given their exploitative and self-interested nature for all things involving knowledge and power. After all, Rabindranath Tagore and Bengali Brahmin luminaries like Syama Prasad Mukherjee’s father, Justice Ashutosh Mukherjee, were the most opposed to the creation of Dhaka University in 1906 as East Bengal’s first university out of fear of not just distribution of resources, but the Muslim capacity to challenge and claim their historical, literary and intellectual narrative in Bengal. A balance and reconciliation of narratives must occur for true understanding of Suhrawardy, including his historical rivals and timeless admirers.

Thus, it should be acknowledged that telling the story of Suhrawardy is no neutral feat, but a war of identity and a vicious cycle of victim-blaming. Recent articles that condemn Suhrawardy as the “Butcher of Bengal,” without a single eye-witness or direct account opposing this manufactured view, ultimately paint the Hindu population of Bengal and India as victims to a triumphant Muslim League politician and his ‘goonda’ constituent population—unmentioned Muslims of Bengal. This is the reality of what Islam points out as Bhadrolok historiography. What started off as Bengali Brahmins who were initially opposed to not just Suhrawardy’s 1946 Muslim League rule but also Chittaranjan Das’s Bengal Pact which sought to address historical socioeconomic disparities for Muslims of Kolkata, has followed into a modern-day tradition of strategically smearing not all Bengali Muslim leaders but just Suhrawardy in order to consolidate the Hindu presence in Bengal as justified and threatened, while framing the Muslim presence in Bengal as unjustified and threatening. 

Tikka Khan is the second figure in Pakistani history, nearly 30 years later during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, who is also considered by historians and the general public as the “Butcher of Bengal.” However, Tikka Khan was the Governor of East Pakistan who on March 25, 1971, under orders of President Yahya Khan, to undertake mass “direct wise military operations” with over 95,000 deployed Pakistan soldiers on the East Pakistan population. Tikka Khan captured all radio stations, organized paramilitary groups of hardline Anti-Liberation Pakistani loyalists known in infamy as the Razakars and imposed a “seek and destroy and infiltrate” method on professionals, academics and members of civil society which saw the systematic killings of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis during the nine-month war. 

Tikka Khan walked into Dhaka on March 25, 1971, stating “kill one million of them and watch the rest eat from our hands,” while stating to his soldiers, “I want the land, not the people.” Tikka Khan is also remembered as the “Butcher of Bengal.” Relatively speaking, when assigning both Suhrawardy and Khan the same label for intentionally killing Bengalis while in a position of power, clearly a disparity arises. Tikka was a Punjabi military official in the service of the Pakistan Army, conditioned by decades of Anti-Bengali Muslim League propaganda for decades, just as much as the legions of majority Punjabi and Pathans who collectively committed brutal wartime atrocities, under the guise of Islamic duty and Pakistani nation-building with U.S. funding. 

In contrast, Suhrawardy was an elected politician in Undivided Bengal who made every effort to prevent the likelihood of violence on Direct Action Day, but was smeared by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Indian National Congress’s propaganda machine for additionally enlisting 1,200 Punjabi Muslim sepahis to patrol Kolkata. The disparity could not be more drastic and the context of a discontented Bengali Brahmin Bhardolok class who despised the tenure of a Muslim League ministry in Bengal, makes explicit why Suhrawardy as a Chief Minister of Bengal at the time additionally deploying 1,200 Punjabi Muslim sepahis in Kolkata would be worthy of equating him to a ‘butcher.’ Upon consideration of the overwhelmingly Hindu, Rajput, Sikh, Gurkha demographic of the 1,200-strong Kolkata police force with less than 80 Muslim personnel altogether, it is clear that calling Suhrawardy a ‘butcher’ at all is a far cry for shifting blame on a horrible episode of colonial violence.

Whether the Butcher of Bengal label is deserved is a topic of ongoing debate. However, competing narratives regarding Suhrawardy’s actions during the riots show that those who stoop to such scapegoating, be it Jaya Chaterji, Deborah Baker or Swarajya contributors, do so out of their own political ends to paint the past and a central figure for Bengali Muslims in the worst light possible. It simply evades common sense that those who pin an atrocity to one man in power, with a rather trite and provoking label, do so out of a pre-existing ambition to smear and undermine those who were once in power. To say Suhrawardy did not provide aid in time or could have done a better job is one thing, but to say that the riots were all planned as part of a bigger scheme to take Kolkata by force into Pakistan, is one of the pathological lies of Bengali history. 

The British and Jinnah, ultimately, were pulling the strings behind Direct Action Day and Suhrawardy was simply at the helm of Bengal during this time. However, out of political expediency to undermine the Muslim presence in Bengal, “Butcher of Bengal” offers a quick fix.

Bengali Camelot: Founding Father of Pakistan & Bangladesh

In Pakistan, the street where the Inter Services Intelligence is housed is named after Suhrawardy, in an ironic twist of fate. He is retrospectively admired for his stellar diplomacy, exercise of free and fair elections and major contributions to Pakistan’s defense including their nuclear program. Under Suhrawardy, Pakistan joined pro-U.S. Cold War pacts and established their Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, which both proved to be effective and longstanding to this day. Some Pakistani journalists, scholars and political observers would even go as far as to crown Suhrawardy the title of “Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Program.” In the endgame of securing Pakistan’s borders and asserting territorial dominance against neighbors like India and Afghanistan with the presence of nuclear weapons, Suhrawardy’s decisions lasted the test of time and earn him much praise to this day as a founding father of Pakistan, although he like many Prime Ministers of this military dictatorship-prone nation before and after him, were martyred.

Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, describes Suhrawardy in his book, Reimagining Pakistan: Repairing a Dysfunctional Nuclear State, as a prophetic politician in Pakistan who exposed many harmful trends created by Pakistani elites within a decade of its founding. 

What Haqqani finds particularly prophetic about Suhrawardy is his first Constituent Assembly speech only seven months after independence. Suhrawardy both condemned Pakistan’s efforts to ethnically cleanse Hindus and Sikhs within their new borders and warned how Pakistan was born by “raising the cry” that the “rights of Muslims were in danger.”

As early as March 1948, Haqqani mentioned how Suhrawardy noted that Pakistan’s elite grew predisposed to “raising the cry of Pakistan in danger” for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together’ to maintain power. This early realization would demonstrate itself when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto assured the West Pakistani public of the Pakistani army’s righteous role in 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, by assuring “we are all Mujahideen.” 

“Pakistan’s elites have grown predisposed to ‘raising the cry of Pakistan in danger’ for the purpose of arousing Muslim sentiments and binding them together to maintain power. A state which will be founded on sentiments, namely that of Islam in danger or of Pakistan in danger, a state which will be held together by raising the ‘bogey of attacks’ and which is kept together by keeping up a constant friction with India would be ‘full of alarms and excursions’. In that state ‘there will be no commerce, no business and no trade. There will be lawlessness.”

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (First Constituent Assembly Speech on March 6, 1948)

According to Suhrawardy, “a state which will be founded on sentiments, namely that of Islam in danger or of Pakistan in danger, a state which will be held together by raising the bogey of attacks’ and which is kept together by keeping up a constant friction with India would be ‘full of alarms and excursions’. In that state there will be no commerce, no business and no trade. There will be lawlessness.” Suhrawardy was ahead of his time for predicting how religion and existential threats to statehood would become default rallying points for Pakistan’s elite not just in the first year of Pakistan’s establishment but 80 years later to this day. 

At odds with General Ayub’s intent to fuse Islamic ideology with economic development in order to morph Pakistan into an ideological state, Suhrawardy was an early visionary for Pakistan as a state that followed a pattern of Western style democracy and supported pro-Western foreign policy. Explicitly laid out, Suhrawardy was an advocate of seeing “Pakistan in terms of a nation state’ wherein a ‘durable identity between government and people derived the operation of consent.” According to Suhrawardy, ideology “would keep alive within Pakistan the divisive communal emotions by which the subcontinent was riven before the achievement of independence.” A lifelong liberal democrat, whose idea of a Muslim state revolved around a Muslim-majority democratic system where economic prosperity and sociopolitical trajectory was secured, rather than a theocracy that polices and manipulates the civilian population on the basis of religious duty. 

“After Independence, Suhrawardy and others who advocated secularism and regional autonomy were marginalized as Pakistan’s first-generation leaders proceeded to build Pakistani identity on a religious basis and laid the foundations of an economy dependent on foreign assistance.”

Hussain Haqqani (Reimaging Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State)

Even later Pakistani politicians like Bhutto would repeat demands for ‘Islamic socialism,’ which the first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan also employed in order to visualize his ideal of an Islamic Pakistan. Clearly, Suhrawardy’s state philosophy was in the minority and was ultimately “never given a chance to function”, similar to democracy in Pakistan altogether. Haqqani was also sure to mention how the Pakistani establishment has, since the beginning, used changes of treason in order to “discredit political opponents and dissidents throughout Pakistan’s history though no one has been. Tried and convicted on the charge.” Suhrawardy was considered a traitor simply for advocating the protection of religious minorities within Pakistan and a non-adversarial stance on India. However, in the words of Haqqani, “that did not stop him from becoming prime minister in 1956.”

In the end, the influence of secular and pro-democracy Bengali politicians would leave Pakistan with the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, leaving Pakistan to its ideological state proponents and military guardians. “After Independence, Suhrawardy and others who advocated secularism and regional autonomy were marginalized as Pakistan’s first-generation leaders proceeded to build Pakistani identity on a religious basis and laid the foundations of an economy dependent on foreign assistance.” In the words of Haqqani, this became the fate of Pakistan after Ayub decided to do what the RSS death squads failed to do during Suhrawardy’s peace missions with Gandhi—kill Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. The fate of Pakistan has been sealed since. A 2015 article by Dawn, titled “The Political Victimization of Suhrawardy,” does an excellent reconciliatory job of uncovering facts about Suhrawardy’s assassinations from a Pakistani perspective and conceding to the fact that the officialdom under Ayub Khan had him murdered.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s biography was published in 1991 by his cousin, Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah. It is the only biography available regarding Suhrawardy’s life to date.
Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s life memoirs edited by former Kushtia Degree College History teacher, Mohammad H.R. Talukdar, was published in 2010.

Where Suhrawardy’s family stands politically, after his death deserves particular attention as well. In her 1991 Biography of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Suhrawardy’s niece and Pakistan Constituent Assembly member Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, offered her political insights and inclinations on the fate of East Pakistan while telling her story of Suhrawardy’s life. 

She mentioned that following the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, “93,000 of our soldiers were captured by India” and remarked that given Suhrawardy’s commitment of integrating East Bengal into a central Pakistan state through initiatives like One Unit, gave her significant reason to believe that Mujib may not have gotten his way with Bangladesh. After all, the name Bangladesh was coined on the 5th death anniversary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s death by his top political protege and son, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. While Suhrawardy did declare the proposal of an independent and sovereign Bengal state in 1947, his decade-long career in Pakistani politics demonstrated that his more practical loyalties lay with building East Bengal through the Pakistani government which he takes credit for establishing with his 1946 Muslim League victory in Undivided Bengal. 

Still, of particular interest, is the fact that Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, would at the year of publication in 1991, two decades after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, still associate herself with the Pakistani state in which she served as one of the first elected female members of the Constituent Assembly in 1948 and Pakistani Ambassador to Morocco from 1964 to 1967. She called the Pakistan army “our soldiers” even after they were defeated, captured and pardoned for genocide of people her ancestors lived with and served selflessly. Shaista deserves a thorough historical assessment of her life and legacy in her own right, but is ultimately not remembered or credited in the eyes of Bengali people for her career choices and lack of advocacy for Bangladesh. Instead, she is a famous writer and female trailblazer in Pakistan for her contribution to Urdu literature and public service. On the other hand, Suhrawardy’s son, Rashid Suhrawardy, was a lifelong supporter of Bangladesh who kept in touch with leading figures of the nation.

Given Suhrawardy’s instant aversion to Liaquat Ali Khan turning Pakistan into a one-party state, there would be no doubt that Suhrawardy would profess disappointment in his political protégé for turning the Awami League he founded against one-party state fascism through free and fair elections, into one-party state that refuses to allow free and fair elections. 

No one knows for sure what Suhrawardy would have thought about Bangladesh breaking from Pakistan, but the economic and political trajectory of Bangladesh over the past 50 years has undeniably eviscerated any doubt that East Pakistan could have prospered better than Bangladesh. Even Suhrawardy himself could not deny the economic trajectory of Bangladesh, from its domestic industries, NGO environment and export growth, given that he laid the basis for it during his 1956 prime ministership. Given Suhrawardy’s instant aversion to Liaquat Ali Khan turning Pakistan into a one-party state, there would be no doubt that Suhrawardy would profess disappointment in his political protégé for turning the Awami League he founded against one-party state fascism through free and fair elections, into one-party state that refuses to allow free and fair elections. 

In Bangladesh, Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College in Dhaka in addition to Suhrawardy Udyan are named after Suhrawardy. Every December, which is both Victory Day and Suhrawardy’s death anniversary, a Bangladeshi based publication will have a family friend or writer write a warm and appreciative piece regarding the legacy of Suhrawardy. In a Dhaka Tribune op-ed, Lawyer Umran Chowdhury in 2019, mentioned how Suhrawardy was a “global statesman” whose story deserves to be studied for future generations.

Those who remember Suhrawardy positively include everyone and anyone from everyday Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and even Indians. In the Dhaka Tribune, a recent piece was published briefly touching upon contributions of the Suhrawardy family which culminated with the dazzling political career of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. On another occasion on the death of his son, Rashid Suhrawardy, Dhaka Tribune did an interview with renowned Bangladesh economist and Freedom Fighter Rehman Sobhan. 

Given Suhrawardy’s instant aversion to Liaquat Ali Khan turning Pakistan into a one-party state, there would be no doubt that Suhrawardy would profess disappointment in his political protégé for turning the Awami League he founded against one-party state fascism through free and fair elections, into one-party state that refuses to allow free and fair elections. 

Sobhan recalled very lovingly how even in London, Rashid Suhrawardy was a guest of honor in the Sylheti restaurants of London. The Sylheti store owners on Brick Lane would ask “when will I get to feed Shaheed Suhrawardy’s son?” 

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy is buried today in the Mausoleum of the Three Leaders, alongside A.K. Fazlul Haq and Khwaja Nazimuddin. The three are symbolically buried together in honor of their collective efforts for the Bengali people during both the final years of the British Raj and the early years of Pakistan. Suhrawardy will undeniably find his name and legacy repeated over and over again, as his motives and actions nearly 70 years ago, still hold weight today. He is, quite simply, a force of nature whose story will be retold indefinitely.

Conclusion: Huseyn the Great

Those who remember Suhrawardy with positivity, will recall his Jukto Front victory in Pakistan, his Muslim League victory in pre-Partition India and his pioneering work building trade unions for the urban, working-class Muslims of Kolkata. Those who remember Suhrawardy, more so for his founding role in Pakistan, will recall his legal career, faith and success in democracy, his foreign policy decisions and the nuclear program he founded, which today is the backbone of Pakistan’s defense. Whereas those who remember Suhrawardy with contempt, will recall his position during the 1946 Calcutta riots and his shortcomings to Bengali people during his Prime Ministership.

Politics exists within a vacuum of interests, which one can only pick and choose from. Suhrawardy chose and picked within his lifetime and with his career, winning him friends and enemies within the three countries he ruled in. 

Today, Bengalis are considered to be hostile, foreign or second-class in Pakistan, even though the life of Suhrawardy proved Bengalis to be foundational to Pakistan. Today, Bengalis are considered to be equally hostile, foreign or second-class in Indian states like Assam, even though the life of Suhrawardy proved Bengalis to be foundational to India. Only in Bangladesh, is Suhrawardy’s dream of Bengalis living with political integrity and economic prosperity following Partition, partially attainable although a breakup from Pakistan would probably not have been in Suhrawardy’s interests.

Today, Bengalis are considered to be hostile, foreign or second-class in Pakistan, even though the life of Suhrawardy proved Bengalis to be foundational to Pakistan.

The first opposition leader, the first pre-Partition Muslim League Ministry and of course, the last Bengali Prime Minister of Pakistan, Suhrawardy ultimately proved that any person of any class or ethnic/religious background can ascend the ranks within any state. Had Suhrawardy not assembled the Awami League against the Muslim League he once fought for during the eve of Partition, the fate of Bengali self-determination within Pakistan would have no foundation or trajectory. The organizing genius that Pakistan owed its founding to, was later bent on dislodging the same Muslim League it helped create for a more equitable and less fascist political party—the Awami League. Had the political genius and educational pedigree of Suhrawardy been replicated and demonstrated by leaders from Baluchistan, Sindh or the Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan probably would have faced multiple, viable opposition parties for the mantle of Pakistan’s central government, if not secession movements of similar magnitude as that of Bangladesh.

Mujib & Suhrawardy rallying for the Awami League in East Pakistan in 1949.
‘Inseparable’ Mujib & Suhrawardy.

Suhrawardy’s experience, during both the Indian Independence movement and the early Pakistani pre-military dictatorship era, allowed him to muster up the Awami League within a span of 5 years and catapult himself to Prime Ministership shortly thereafter. His versatility and companionship with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ultimately paved the way for Bangladesh as Mujib lived vicariously through Suhrawardy since his Muslim League days as his top political lieutenant. Ultimately, Mujib lacking Suhrawardy’s worldly, cosmopolitan worldview, patience in negotiations and experience with democracy, led to Mujib becoming what his mentor spent his life fighting—an autocrat.

Still, Mujib cherished and respected Suhrawardy, as shown in his Prison Diaries:

“Initially, Bengalis failed to appreciate Mr. Suhrawardy’s greatness. By the time they learned to value him they had run out of time.”

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Prison Diaries)

Thus, when scholars, journalists and experts alike mention East Pakistan as possessing far more political maturity than West Pakistan, they are referring to this political base which was the most powerful and only successful engine of the Muslim League, that secured Pakistan to begin with. This engine was the life work of Muslim leaders of Bengal, including A.K. Fazlul Haq, Khwaja Nazimuddin and Maulana Bhashani, but was ultimately the culmination of Suhrawardy’s unionization and political platform which was always meant for the people of Bengal, irrespective of religion or creed. 

The first pre-Partition Muslim League Ministry, the first successful opposition leader in Pakistan, and of course, the last Bengali Prime Minister of Pakistan, Suhrawardy ultimately proved that any person of any class or ethnic/religious background can ascend the ranks within any state. Had Suhrawardy not assembled the Awami League against the Muslim League he once fought for during the eve of Partition, the fate of Bengali self-determination within Pakistan would have no foundation or trajectory.

Suhrawardy’s political contributions simply chart the course of the history of Bengal from when he returned from London in 1920 to join Chittaranjan Das’s Swaraj Party against the British to Pakistan’s first military coup directed under General Ayub Khan. In the beginning, he steered the course towards freedom and prosperity and towards the end, he fought against the fascist interests of democracy turned military dictatorship. 

To call Suhrawardy a leader, begs the question of for who and for what cause. To which can be answered with the Muslims of Bengal, the Hindus of Pakistan and the mutual betterment of India and Pakistan as democracies which safeguard the rights of minorities. Among all his causes, the partial success of his first declaration for an independent and sovereign Bengal lived on with Mujib’s founding of Bangladesh, while West Bengal lies within Indian territory to this day.

In the grand scheme of Bengali history, there are a line of leaders that ruled the land such as Lakshmana Sen, Bakhtiyar Khilji, Siraj-ud-Daulah and in the modern period, there are Tagore, Mujib and of course, Hasina and Khaleda Zia. It is thus a fair assessment to declare that in the line of Bengali leaders that chart the trajectory of Bengal after independence, Suhrawardy would undeniably be a foundational figure. 

Suhrawardy was the crucial, in fact, necessary link that facilitated the transition of Bengal from British India to India and East Pakistan. In the end, Suhrawardy’s closest political protege, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with his Six-Point Movement, 1970 Pakistan General Election victory and Declaration of Independence from Pakistan as Bangladesh, became the premier leader of Suhrawardy’s Awami League party and of the nation’s legacy. Unlike Mujib or A.K. Fazlul Haq or even Chittaranjan Das, Suhrawardy is not remembered among the Bengali people with an honorific. Whereas Mujib is Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal), Haq is Sher-e-Bangla (Tiger of Bengal) and Suhrawardy’s first mentor Das is Deshbandhu (Friend of our Country), Suhrawardy has never been conferred a timeless honorific title. Whether it be for his Jukto Front shortcomings or his pro-U.S. foreign policy as Prime Minister, Suhrawardy is remembered for his contributions but not adored to the same degree as those with honorific, for reasons some find more fitting than others.

In the school of Mujib, where the national narrative of Bangladesh’s triumph culminates with Mujib, Suhrawardy’s otherwise disproportionate credit due for laying the foundation for the nation is put in the backseat of Bangladeshi history. While in India’s history, he is politicized and in Pakistani history, he is glorified only to the extent that his contributions built up the defense and diplomacy of Pakistan as his contributions to Pakistan’s democracy “were never given a chance to function” in his own words.

In July of 1956, when Suhrawardy was a VIP guest touring Jim Crow-era Los Angeles as a Prime Minister, he resided in a five-star hotel in an inner city neighborhood of the city that would later host the second largest Bengali diaspora in the U.S. outside New York—Little Bangladesh. The coincidence and exceptionalism is just as surprising as his political career.

Whether Suhrawardy succeeded is a constant discussion of debate, but whether Suhrawardy acted and contributed significantly, is undoubtedly true and endlessly appreciated for time immemorial. 

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